Dynasty and Democracy in South Asia

“Jiye Bhutto!” (Long live Bhutto!) shouts a farmer attending a rally in Sindh, Pakistan. “Indira is India, India is Indira!” announces a politician from the state of Assam in India. “Zia shounik ek hou!” (Zia’s soldiers, stand together!) chant political workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

These three expressions underline a controversial and, perhaps, undemocratic facet of South Asian democracies: the overwhelming political and cultural power of familial dynasties.

A myriad of factors has allowed political families to engrave their position within the body politic of several South Asian countries. The lack of education, especially amongst the poor who make up the majority of these countries, remains the most significant factor. Understandably, people who have not been educated do not have many, if any, means to gain an objective insight into a political party’s vision and performance beyond the pretty picture painted by the party itself or the ever-critical reviews given by opposing parties. Hence, it becomes more attractive for such people to just vote for someone who seems familiar rather than to test their luck with an opposing candidate. Political competitions become based on politicians and their names while party promises, policies, and past records take the back seat. This is evident from the three slogans mentioned in the beginning as, clearly, a candidate’s last name seems to pass as a very valid reason to vote for them in an upcoming election.

The dynasty system becomes more and more entrenched within a country’s politics as time goes on. Once a family gains hold of the reigns of power within a party, there is almost always no turning back. Key positions within the party are mostly kept within the dynasty (or those loyal to it). Through all of this, the name of the party becomes synonymous with the name of its ruling family; surely, no Pakistani can think of the Pakistan People’s Party without thinking of the Bhutto family, and no Indian can think of the Indian National Congress without relating it to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Because political dynasties have been around for so long, they face very public struggles as well as tragedies, which make the general citizenry feel further personally attached to them. This can be seen in the results of elections that take place right after a member of a major political dynasty is assassinated. In 1991 in India, the Congress won one of its largest victories, despite not delivering most of its previous political promises, because of the fact that the party’s scion Rajiv Gandhi had recently been assassinated. Similarly, Benazir Bhutto’s entire rise to power was based off her status as the daughter of a man who was judicially murdered by a military dictator. Continuing this tradition, when Benazir herself was assassinated, her husband Asif Ali Zardari won the following election due to the sympathy vote that arose because of her killing.

With political dynasties playing a major role in South Asian democracies, one must confront the question of whether or not this practice is inherently undemocratic. Fatima Bhutto, a rare non-politician member of her family, categorically stated that she is against the entire concept of political dynasty because “it doesn’t strengthen democratic institutions. It doesn’t strengthen political participation and it doesn’t foster any kind of inclusivity in the system; it does the opposite of all three.” Indeed, the problems caused by dynasties in a democracy can be seen to cement the status quo by taking away any incentive to perform positive politics which improve the state of the nation. Political families become well aware that regardless of how little they work or how many billions they embezzle, they will have power as long as they have their family name. Incidentally, this has made certain female politicians inclined towards giving their children their maternal surname, breaking one of the most pervasive social norms in South Asia while giving the excuse that doing the same mirrors their belief in feminism. This can be seen in the case of Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, keeping his paternal as well as maternal surname. It is notable that although his full name is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, he is known more commonly as Bilawal Bhutto than as Bilawal Zardari.

This false feminism is also visible when eminent personalities such as Barkha Dutt, a famous Indian journalist, say things like, “Why is it so hard for a woman to become the president of America…We do not have conversations like that in India where we had a female prime minister four decades ago.” What Barkha forgets in making this proud claim is that Indira Gandhi, much like Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan as well as Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, belongs to a prominent political dynasty and is directly related to a famous male politician. While it may be argued that these women are strong politicians who just happened to belong to powerful families, it must be noted that their entire election campaigns often revolved around their fathers, husbands, or other relatives. In fact, Khaleda Zia and Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power can be attributed to the narrative they sold to the public about being daughters or wives of martyred politicians, wanting to ensure that the dreams that their father or husband had but could not accomplish were indeed converted to reality.

Dynasties are clearly detrimental to the democratic health of South Asia, but there is hope—most signs indicate that the power of dynasties is fading. The massive loss of the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress in the 2014 general election shows that the Indian public is no longer blindly committed to the Nehru-Gandhi family and, instead, seeks to hold them accountable for their many unfulfilled promises since the time of independence. The Pakistan People’s Party has also been weakening under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father, and it is notable that many veterans of the party have expressed reservations, whether in public or in private, about Bilawal’s ability to lead the party. This dissatisfaction with the leadership has even caused estranged PPP leaders to form a new party itself. These recent developments show that democracies are ready to move beyond dynastic rule.

Another monumental instance that indicates that politics are changing in South Asia is the Aam Aadmi Party—a party with no affiliation to any political family—winning the people’s mandate in Delhi, the capital city of India. It is also notable that in the last Indian general election, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was mockingly called ‘Shehzada’ (prince) by other political parties, hinting at his lofty lifestyle as well as to the notion that the country was his to ‘inherit’. This portrayal as a prince who is out of touch with the nation’s reality certainly played a role in estranging the public from both Rahul Gandhi and his party. These instances demonstrate that people might be ready to vote for a party on the basis of their credibility without caring about political families or similar factors. Evidence of the same can also been seen in Pakistan, where Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has emerged on the scene, touting its ‘non-family party’ status as a major selling point. Surely, if parties that have been historically run by single families want to avoid others using such jibes to weaken their democratic credentials, they must fundamentally change themselves by stopping to act like family businesses and by bringing fresh faces to the forefront.

From the examples mentioned above, one may sense a change in voters’ priorities–a change which has the potential to change the political future of the whole of South Asia as a region. However, only the next sets of national elections in the region, all happening within the next five years, will really show whether this change will translate to a substantial difference in the way people vote on the ground or if people will continue to vote on the basis of last names, as they have for the past few decades. Only in the former case will political dynasties’ futures in South Asia be any different than their past.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here