In the summer of 2019, a humiliating Lok Sabha defeat forced Rahul Gandhi, a fifth generation dynast, to resign from the post of president of the Indian National Congress party. The campaigns leading up to the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and subsequent rejection of the INC were marked by anti-establishment and anti-dynastic rhetoric. Narendra Modi often referred to Rahul Gandhi as “shehzada” which is Urdu for prince, as a sign of being from a prominent dynasty that has lost its touch with the common man. The BJP even projected itself as one of the few national parties that did not have any prominent political families.
However, none of this changed the make-up of the 2019 Lok Sabha. It consisted of a total of 30 MPs coming from political families. This is 23% of the total body. Throughout history, the political climate of India has lent itself favourably to dynastic politics. The entry of families into politics is facilitated by clientelism and patronage-democracy in which access to state office brings with it immense returns. Sociologist Andre Beteille observes that deep-rooted loyalty for family, kinship, and community in Indian society overrides the sanctity of constitutional government by prioritizing family name over merit in politics.
On a party level – such family candidates are given tickets because they bring along with them the name recognition as well as trust of the voters. The reason for the pervasive nature of such politics is that dynasties entrench and expand themselves by diversifying their portfolios. Distributing family members across state offices is insurance against risk – if one family member gets voted out of power, then there are others who have retained their seat and thus, the family as a whole rarely loses its influence. This diversification is seen even across party lines which means that irrespective of any party winning, the family can retain its capital. As such, it is in the best interest of the dynasty to bring in more members, irrespective of gender.
Here, it is interesting to note that while dynastic politics in India remains widespread, there is an entry of women into politics through such dynasties. Only 11.3% of the MPs elected in the Lok Sabha were women, compared to the global average of women’s representation in parliaments, which stands at 22 per cent. Yet out of the 62 women elected, almost half of them came from dynasties. India’s only female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, came from a long lineage of seasoned politicians. A majority of female Chief Ministers have been from dynasties such as Vijayaraje Scindia, Sheila Dixit, and so on.
Given the low percentage of women that run for parliament and subsequently get elected, is it possible that women from dynastic politics have a better chance of firstly being given a ticket and secondly being able to win? The first certainly seems to be true. 100% of the female candidates fielded by the SP, the TDP, the DMK and the TRS belong to political families. This is seen in the Congress and the BJP as well, with half of their women candidates being part of dynasties. Even the Trinamool Congress, which has given tickets to a record number of women and which is one of the less dynastic parties of India, tends to play it safe by nominating a large fraction of women belonging to political families (27%). There seems to exist a hierarchical perception of the women candidates that are fielded which places the one with dynastic ties squarely at the top. This can perhaps be attributed to parties still assuming that platforming female candidates is a “risk”.
Second, the dynastic women candidate has the protection of the family as opposed to a non-dynast. Due to the chauvinistic and entrenched patriarchal norms present in our society, the malicious campaigns run against women candidates often attack their “moral” behaviour and character as opposed to their policies and platform. Their dynastic background provides them protection. Additionally, those candidates will also have a ‘step in the door’ since they are typically groomed to take over after their brother, father, or male relatives. For example, Indira Gandhi was educated in Oxford and studied international conflicts and tensions on the side of her father. She was positioned to take over the party and lead the country. Thus, it seems that such women candidates have a better likelihood of contesting and winning.
However, this kind of representation of women through dynastic politics lacks an intersectional approach. This is because the kind of women that get elected this way happen to be well-educated, well-read, wealthy and upper caste women who hardly portray a representative image of women in India. Moreover, these women rarely push feminist issues and agendas. The most prominent example of this is from Pakistan as Benazir Bhutto took a hard anti-abortion stance and refused to remove the Hudood Laws which state that a woman who accuses a man of sexual harassment must corroborate the same with four male witnesses and also that a woman’s testimony only counts for half as much as a man’s. Closer home, Indira Gandhi refused to identify herself as a feminist and during her tenure, while battling stereotypes, she remained only a figure-head of women empowerment.
What is clear is that while dynastic politics does help women get elected in the first place, it has a ‘one-step forward, two steps-back’ approach to women representation and empowerment in politics.
Niharika Mehrotra is a second year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.