India’s new parliament isn’t as new as you think


A worker from India's ruling Congress party holds a broken cut-out of Rahul Gandhi, Congress party vice president and son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, that was damaged in a thunder storm before the start of a party meeting ahead of the 2014 general election in Kolkata in March. India held general elections in April and May. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)S)

According to a new report in The Hindu, nearly one quarter of members of parliament in the new Lok Sabha are from Indian dynasties. In total, the paper reported, some 130 MPs out of 545 in India's parliament came from political families.

That's a remarkably high figure. Even in the United States, which of course has no shortage of its own famous political dynasties (the Kennedys, the Bushs, etc.), studies find lower numbers of political dynasties. Last year, Time magazine found that 37 members of Congress would qualify as being part of a political dynasty: a little less than 7 percent. One study from 2009 found that 9 percent of members of Congress between 1789 and 1996 had been related to a previous member of Congress.

India's love of political dynasties hasn't appeared overnight, of course. Previous research from Anjali Bohlken and Kanchan Chandra found that the number of Lok Sabha MPs with at least one family connection in politics was 20% in 2004 and 29% in 2009. Politics doesn't seem to be the one sphere of Indian culture where dynasties reign: Bollywood has the Kapoor family, for example, and business has the Ambanis.

Earlier this year, an article by Milan Vaishnav, Devesh Kapur and Neelanjan Sircar published in the Times of India revealed the results of a survey that found 46 percent of Indians didn't have a problem with voting for a candidate from a political dynasty. When asked why, about 45 percent said that those from dynastic families were better at politics because it is their family occupation, while another 40 percent said that their greater exposure to politics was an asset.

It's a similar argument made by dynastic politicians all around the world (British socialist Tony Benn, member of a storied political family, claimed to have political experience far beyond his age due to what his father had told him about his own experiences). More cynical minds might suggest that Indians, previously used to living under the Maharajas, have been conditioned to favor dynastic politics (some dynasties, such as the Scindias, can be directly traced back to the Majarajas).

In his 2011 book, "India: A Portrait," Patrick French sought to break down the nepotism in Indian politics, which he noted was "so taken for granted that it had never been fully quantified." French's book contains a number of interesting details: Political dynasties seemed to transcend geographic boundaries, though Congress Party had more dynastic MPs than Bharatiya Janata Party (and Rashtriya Lok Dal was 100% dynastic – though, with only five MPs, that is less impressive than it sounds).

Perhaps most interesting, however, is French's discovery that 100 percent of MPs under 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha were from politically connected families. The implication is that as Indian democracy progresses, dynastic politics is becoming more entrenched, not less.

French is clearly somewhat dismayed by the realization: "The Indian republic was founded on the truth that power should not be handed over by the colonial rulers to the princes," he wrote. He might be more dismayed in 2014, as even parties that have attempted to avoid dynastic candidates have ended up accepting them: Rajmohan Gandhi joined the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man Party) earlier this year.

On the other hand, the idea that one of Congress Party's biggest weaknesses might have been the scion of India's most important political families and both the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers may give him a little hope.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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