Dynastic politics in South Asia — I

Dynastic politics is being challenged in several South Asian countries

Dynastic  politics in South Asia — I


n a country like Pakistan where politics is often an art form for an elite and it is very often dynastic, it’s hard to explain to people why I don’t think it is a birth right. - Fatima Bhutto

When Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was put a question about dynastic politics by the CNN, he appeared flummoxed. Dynastic politics is a necessary part of South Asian politics. It is almost inevitable in societies where family structure is strong, kinship bonds underpin the social ethos and feudalism persists. But in Pakistan and some other South Asian countries, dynastic politics is being challenged. This challenge is against politicians who are seen as having a significant advantage over their rivals from the start of their political career. They have a higher probability of electoral success when pitted against politicians lacking similar political networks.

Marium Shah, commented quite pertinently in a recent op-ed, “Democracy is unfortunately not very democratic. First, a lack of democracy within political parties is a major obstruction in improving the way electoral politics works in Pakistan.” The rank and file of all dynastic parties know who is destined to inhere the party leadership. This hobbles evolutionary growth in democratic institutions and does not allow equal representation of those who don’t share the ‘dynastic blood’.

Two political dynasties have dominated South Asia. According to Andrew Whitehead, “A Gandhi has been at the helm in India for 16 of those 50 years, the same length of time that the Bhutto-Zardari family has been in power in Pakistan. Both have suffered assassinations, tragedies, corruption scandals and public fallouts sufficient, an outsider might imagine, to persuade any of the coming generation to keep clear of politics. Yet both families are still sticking at it, if with different degrees of diligence and success.”

The Bhutto family has been one of the most ambitious and powerful in Pakistan. The Bhuttos were, and still are, land-owners in a way that the Gandhis have never been.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir have been among the most intelligent, visionary and liberal of Pakistan’s rulers. A third member of the dynasty, Asif Ali Zardari, has served as an MNA, a federal minister and a president. The Pakistan Peoples Party has changed significantly under his leadership, which critics says, lacks the idealism that defined Zulfikar and Benazir.

Owen Bennet Jones writes that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was born in Larkana when Sindh was still part of the Bombay presidency. He grew up in the city of Bombay. He led a life of privilege before becoming a minister at 31, foreign minister at 35 and Pakistan’s president at 43. Despite his sharp wit, eloquence, and charisma, he failed to build democratic institutions and could not win the confidence of the army. Whitehead says, “He was also not the best judge of people. It was his own pick as army chief, Zia ul Haq, who first overthrew him and then executed him.”

Between his execution and Benazir taking over the reins of the PPP, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi was in charge of the party. He was ineffective. Benazir was compelled to enter politics out of reverence for her father. She endured imprisonment, including ten months in solitary confinement, before rallying the country to her political standard.

Both the generals and Islamists scorned her because of her gender. That scorn followed her until she was assassinated in December 2007, adding yet another Bhutto to those who died an unnatural death. Subsequent to her tragic death, the PPP has lost some of its popular appeal.

In 1919, Motilal Nehru became the president of India’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress. In 2019, another Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, quit the post after accepting responsibility for the party’s disastrous election results. Rahul Gandhi is Motilal Nehru’s great-great-grandson.

The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated Indian politics since independence when Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s first prime minister. The dynasty has produced three prime ministers and a member of the family has overseen the country for nearly 50 of the 75 years since 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal charisma was a significant factor in the establishment and sustenance of the family dynasty.

The Gandhi surname was derived from Feroze Gandhi, who married Nehru’s daughter Indira in 1942. In 1984, Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards following a deadly confrontation between Indian security forces and Sikh separatist militants at the Golden Temple in the Punjab.

She was seen to have groomed her younger son, Sanjay, to be her political heir but he was killed in a plane crash in 1980. Her elder son Rajiv reluctantly took over her political mantle and served as prime minister from 1984 to 1989. He, too, was assassinated in 1991. The Nehru-Gandhi family’s dominance of Indian politics began to diminish in the late 1990s, along with the fortunes of the Congress. With Sita Ram Kesri as head of Congress, the party became a shadow of its previous self.

Critics blamed the decline on a failure to identify with a new class of aspirational young voters. After Rajiv’s death, the party was not led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family for several years. In 1998, Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian-born widow, Sonia Gandhi agreed to take over. She propelled Congress back to power in 2004 and for 10 years ruled from behind the scenes. In 2014, the party was routed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party following a string of corruption scandals. Despite a series of electoral setbacks, few in the party have questioned the leadership of Sonia and Rahul.

(To be continued)

Dynastic politics in South Asia — I