By Harihar Swarup
Weeks ago West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, came to the Central Hall of Parliament and spent a couple of hours with journalists. She has known most of the correspondents, having access to the Central Hall, personally, and called them by first name. She replied to all the questions including controversial ones with ease. When someone asked her about the off springs of political leaders that have come to the fore in aftermath of assembly elections in five states, she snapped: “ I have not got the chief minister’s post in legacy. I have come up the hard way from the grass root level unlike those who rose to power riding on the back of their fathers or mothers.”
Mamata’s dig was, apparently, to mandate 2012 which marked the hastening of a generational shift in leadership. Significantly, the transition is largely a family-centric affair. Son or daughter of an established leader called the shot and now dominate politics. Two stars – Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi party and Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal – sparkled by steering their parties to impressive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab respectively. The other two – Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal – dimmed as their parties stumbled and fell in UP. But together all four represent the 21st century narrative in Indian politics, of a generational shift as the leadership baton passes from old to the new, all within the family. The trend has been visible for sometime. The 2012 assembly polls have only reinforced it with UP becoming the battleground for the scions of three politics dynasties. Akhilesh, Rahul and Jayant criss-crossed the sprawling state, covering thousands of kilometers and addressing hundreds of rallies, while the elders took a back seat and let their children lead from the front.
The SAD story in Punjab was much the same. Badal senior was hardly visible, although he is the Chief Minister, as Sukhbir ran the campaign without the help of his father. That he managed the impossible, by bucking a historical trend and bringing an incumbent government back to power, has sealed succession debate within the party in his favour.
It has been evident for many years that politics has increasingly become a family business in India. But what the recent elections have emphasised is that political parties themselves have become family run companies to be handed over from father to son or daughter, as the case may be. Once upon a time only the Congress could be accused of running on dynasty levers. Now the same charge can be applied to parties across the political spectrum, except, perhaps, with the honourable exception of the BJP and the Left Parties. Anyone who dares to challenge the succession line, even he belongs to ruling family is cut to size swifty. Raj Thackeray, nephew of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, and Manpreet Badal, cousin to Sukhbir, were charged with anti-party activity and summarily expelled when they laid claim to leadership.
Down south, DMK chief Karunanidhi is still trying to decide who to make his political heir, but since claimants are all direct descendents, no one has been axed. Karunanidhi has to choose between sons, Azhagiri and Stalin, and daughter Kanimozhi, who seems to have developed stronger political ambitions after her stint in jail. DMK veterans, who defend Karunanidhi’s tenacious grip on power say that Stalin is efficient but has none of his father’s charisma, oratorical skill or sense of drama. Even at 87, Karunanidhi thinks he has enough political fire in him to hang on to the DMK throne. Added to this, the endless family feuds continue and prince Stalin looks set for a long wait for the top post.
The new generation that is taking over is bringing with it interesting changes, usually for better. Akhilesh, for example, with his military school background and Australian post-graduate education, attempted a huge makeover of his party’s medieval image. Some of his decisions are well known, like laptop who finish Class XII. In Punjab, Sukhbir Badal did similar make-over. The old churidar-kurta clad, kripan carrying, Jathedar, who used to be face of Akali Dal in his father’s time, has made way for younger, well-educated , English speaking tech-savvy Sikhs. Sukhbir insisted that all his nominees start Face-book pages to keep in touch with voters. Scions of political families have the advantage of been born in politics and being groomed from childhood to takeover the family business one day. It gives them a head-start. But this is democracy and after the first lap, they have to learn their spurs in the court of the people. This was the lesson to Rahul and Jayant taught by the electorate. Both had hoped that their family lineage would act as lightening rod for voters. Recall the manner in which Rahul Gandhi launched his campaign from his great grand father Jawaharlal Nehru’s constituency – Phulpur. It didn’t work. On voting day, people made it clear they want something more than just a great name. They want accessible leaders who can help them meet their surging aspirations. (IPA Service)