Dynastic Politics in South Asia: Part I

A Harvard University study recently showed that both the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress Party have historically been equally dynastic. The BJP often criticises the Congress for nepotism in fronting Rahul Gandhi, scion of the influential Gandhi family as their President. This study lays those allegations to rest by proving that the BJP is no different, perhaps just less public about the ways in which it supports its dynasties.

The Third Generation: Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto
(Source: Times of India)

India is just one South Asian country in which dynastic politics plays an influential role. The Bhuttos and Sharifs have long dominated Pakistani politics and the Bangladeshi National Party run almost exclusively by the Rahman-Zia family. Myanmar is controlled by Aung San Suu Kyi; daughter of Aung San. Nobel credentials notwithstanding, she has lost most of her credibility with the international community due to her stance on the Rohingya refugee crisis. Her political rival within the USDP, Shwe Mann’s children are successful businessmen and their success has largely been credited to their fathers blessing.

Born out of the ashes of British Rule, all of these nations were founded upon great ideals, not a desire for family rule.

Yet, as the older generation of freedom fighters moved out of the picture, their children took their place. Today, a new generation of dynasts is poised to inherit South-Asian politics. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has two surnames to his credit and Maryam Nawaz, daughter of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also a politician. In India, the list is endless with everyone from the Bishnoi’s in Haryana, the Pawars and Thakeray’s in Maharashtra rushing to build campaigns for their children. Rahul Gandhi is; ironically, said to blame senior Congress MP’s for his election losses for spending more time ensuring their sons won seats than focusing on campaigning for the party.

So why have these political dynasties continued into the 21st Century? Perhaps, feudalism is entrenched in their structure.

In India, for instance, the delimitation of the electoral map for its 553 Lok Sabha seats has not changed since 1971. It was supposed to have been mapped again during the 2001 Census but this was scrapped and pushed till 2026, and more recently to 2030.

During this time, India’s population has grown from 548 million to 1.2 billion.

The reason for this electoral map is ostensibly that any change will cause a drop in the number of MP’s representing the south, where family planning has historically been more successful. The argument is that it would be unfair to reduce the number of parliamentary seats representing the southern states’ as it would essentially penalise their successful family planning initiatives. However, this dilutes the fundamental concept of ‘One Man, One Vote’ due to the fact that more populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are now disproportionately represented in Parliament.

It also appears to have had the dual effect of entrenching families to certain constituencies. For instance, the Nehru-Gandhi family’s bastions are Amethi and Rae Barelli in Uttar Pradesh whose constituents remain fiercely loyal (notable exception is Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 loss from Amethi) despite having seen little economic growth; South Mumbai has been ruled by the son of former politician Murli Deora ever since his death. The problems with feudalism in Pakistan have long been documented. Contrary to public expectation, these issues have not changed since the inception of Imran Khan’s PTI. Hereditary landownership and domination in Parliament continue to affect Pakistan’s economy and democracy. Bangladesh’s political parties only present a choice between Khaleeda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, daughters of General Zia and Mujibur Rehman.

One thing that all three nations do have in common is a large population of Millennials. They constitute 47% of India’s working age population. Over 30% of the population of Bangladesh is under 24 and over 64% of Pakistan’s population is under 30. This mass of young voters has all suffered from misrule under the hands of these families, yet only a few of them have experienced the causes that continue to dominate their national discourse. If they want to change their future, they need only vote.

Author’s Note: We acknowledge that this article disproportionately highlights members of the Indian National Congress. Part II will discuss how the BJP and other regional parties are building a new generation of dynastic leaders.

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