Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Family business as politics

By SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR


In a parliamentary democracy, ministers are generally supposed to be elected representatives of the people. But not in the era of Sonia Gandhi. Increasingly, her Cabinets — it would be naïve to call them Manmohan Singh Cabinets — are stuffed with her nominees from the Rajya Sabha.

This is the culmination of decades of centralisation of power in the Congress party in the Gandhi family. The Congress is not fond of members who can actually develop their own power base and get elected with large majorities: such upstarts might forget that the party is a closely-held family business.

In past decades, powerful Congress chief ministers (H N Bahuguna, Y B Chavan, Sharad Pawar) suspected of high ambitions were put in their place. Congress party bosses are nominated, not elected.

This trend is now reflected in the composition of the Cabinet. Ministers are being nominated via the Rajya Sabha by the Gandhi-in-chief, rather than entering by the popularly-elected Lok Sabha route.

Consider the new Cabinet appointees in the week-end reshuffle. Of the six new Congress entrants, only one (A R Antulay) is a Lok Sabha member. Murali Deora, Vayalar Ravi and Saifuddin Soz are Rajya Sabha members. Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ambika Soni are not MPs, and will enter via the Rajya Sabha within six months (they have neither the opportunity nor appetite for fighting an early Lok Sabha by-election).
The trend is not entirely new. The prime minister is himself a Rajya Sabha member, having lost the only Lok Sabha election he fought. Home minister Shivraj Patil, HR minister Arjun Singh and law minister Bharadwaj are also Rajya Sabha members.

The contrast with Congress allies in the Cabinet is glaring. No less than 10 of the 11 Cabinet ministers representing UPA allies are from the Lok Sabha.

What exactly is happening? The Congress party has become a family business parading as a political party. Enthusiastic investors seek to become shareholders in this great enterprise, and share in its dividends and capital appreciation. They can hope to rise to the Board.

But only at their peril can they dream of becoming CEO; that post, as in all good family businesses, is reserved for the controlling family. Even if you are made prime minister, like Manmohan Singh, you know that the CEO is the Gandhi-in-chief.

Intellectuals have long bemoaned the transformation of the Congress from the party of the independence movement to the Gandhi family business. But that is now old hat. More to the point, other parties are becoming family businesses too. The Gandhis have set an irresistible political fashion.

Some years ago, reviewing the change in the political scene in the last decade, I said that parties claiming to reach out to all Indians (Congress, CPI, CPM) had lost ground to parties based on religion (BJP, Shiv Sena), caste (BSP, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal) and region (the BJD, NCP and TRS being new additions to older regional ranks).

I saw in this the rise of identity politics, of parties based not on issues but on identity groups loyal to a religion, caste or region.

However, that analysis now seems inadequate. Identity politics is a major force, but even identity-based parties are degenerating into family businesses. The RJD, which started as a backward-caste party, has become a fief of the Lalu Yadav family.

The Samajwadi Party is a Mulayam Yadav business, to be inherited by his son. Bal Thackeray’s son and nephew have battled to inherit the Shiv Sena. Janaki Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa battled to succeed the late M G Ramachandran in AIADMK. Lakshmi Parvati and Chandrababu Naidu fought for the legacy of the TDP.

The DMK, once the proud standard bearer of Tamil backward castes, has become a Karunanidhi family business, causing non-family stalwarts like Vaiko to exit in disgust. And in Karnataka, Deve Gowda has seen one of his sons, Kumaraswamy, take over the party mantle that earlier seemed reserved for his elder brother Revanna.

In time, these parties too will probably use the Rajya Sabha route to the Union Cabinet. So, why is Indian politics becoming a contest of family businesses? What happened to issue-based politics and parties?

The answer seems to be that we are moving to a form of democratic feudalism. A democracy is supposed to be based on the rule of law, but feudal chiefs are above the law.

We have wrecked the judicial-administrative system inherited from the British, and made it incapable of convicting anybody of any crime beyond all appeals. People die of old age before their appeals are completed (Harshad Mehta and P V Narasimha Rao being recent examples).

In this polity, outcomes are determined not by rule of law but by money, muscle and influence. Corruption is rife and allegations of wrong-doing fill the air.

Yet this becomes political theatre rather than justice since nobody is convicted beyond appeals. Money-makers flourish, and those that fail to make enough money for their parties can lose their Cabinet posts. Thugs are useful in booth-capturing and are inducted into Cabinets.

Let me not exaggerate: elections and institutions provide enough checks and balances to prevent India from sliding into the downright thuggery of Africa. Still, when money, muscle and influence are seen by most people to determine most outcomes, citizens have no incentive to vote for quality politicians who swear by the rule of law but are ineffective.

Instead, citizens vote for those who can get things done because they have the most money, muscle and influence. These qualifications are found in the most ample measure in family businesses, as any feudal lord or mafia chief can tell you.

This is not a total negation of democracy. Political dynasties exist in other democracies too. So too do money and influence (though muscle and booth-capturing are less common). But India is suffering from grave institutional erosion.

One well-known consequence is the rising proportion of criminals in legislatures and Cabinets. Unexpectedly, another consequence seems to be the rising proportion of ministers from the Upper House.
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