India's Hereditary MPs

Published: June 12, 2014 21:32 IST
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(Patrick French is an award-winning historian and political commentator. His books include 'Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division', 'The World Is What It Is' and 'India: A Portrait'.)

At the recent general election, several well-known political dynasties were voted out of office. Names such as Sachin Pilot, Farooq Abdullah, Jitin Prasada and Milind Deora disappeared from India's parliamentary rolls (but remember: in South Asia, ex-politicians usually return.) There is however little sign that this represents a real break in the continuity of family politics, and in powerful hereditary MPs in the Lok Sabha and beyond. Despite Narendra Modi's clear statement that nepotism is "an enemy of democracy", and his refusal so far to make dynasts into ministers, the BJP has for example Poonam Mahajan, Jayant Sinha, Dushyant Singh and a brace of Gandhis in its ranks. As well as several long-standing hereditaries, the Congress parliamentary rump welcomed various genetically privileged newcomers like Gourav Gogoi, Sushmita Dev, Rajiv Satav, B.V. Nayak and Abhijit 'dented and painted' Mukherjee, who holds a seat made vacant when his father Pranab became president.

After the last general election, I did a study to see how all of India's MPs had reached the Lok Sabha. The findings were a wake-up call: for instance, two-thirds of MPs under the age of forty-five already had a near relative in politics, and the younger Congress faces had almost all inherited a parliamentary seat, usually from a parent. 70 percent of women MPs from across all the parties were from a dynastic background. A preliminary study by The Hindu newspaper suggests family politics may be alive and kicking in the 16th Lok Sabha. All of the Samajwadi Party's five MPs have family ties, as do more than half of the YSR Congress Party's, and just under half of the TDP's. The BJP's dynasty quota stands at a little over 16 percent, but with the Congress party it leaps up to 41 percent, a jump from the 2009 general election.

How far do individual families control parties? Which parties are more meritocratic? Are the genetically privileged more likely to win and if so, is it because they are more adept at garnering tickets for 'winnable' seats? And even if parties nominate dynastic candidates, why do voters elect them?

The answers to these questions are crucial to India's influential status as a large and representative democracy. Together with the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, I am making a new study of all candidates who contested the 2014 general election (with the exception of those who lost their deposit). Our intention is to put together a publicly accessible database of all MPs and could-have-been MPs, showing how they entered politics. If you would like to help with the crowdsourcing of this information, perhaps through knowledge of candidates in your home state, email your contact details to familypolitics2014@gmail.com.

As I have written previously, a hereditary MP is not necessarily a bad MP - some are good, and all democracies have a few politicians who are following in the footsteps of a parent. The problem in India is one of scale: if the Lok Sabha is to avoid becoming a Vansh Sabha, it has to be possible for talented individuals to rise on merit and gain a space in national politics. In some parties, that is all but impossible. We are left with the question: how much genuine choice is the Indian voter getting at the national level? By looking not only at the winners, but at all those who were picked to contest parliamentary seats, I hope it will be possible for us to come up with some answers.

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