Debating India

March of the Dynasties

Monday 4 December 2006, by MALHOTRA*Inder

In the huge and hugely entertaining collection of tales about Sherlock Holmes, the legendary detective, there is a particularly delightful story in which his devoted companion and chronicler, Watson, on seeing his hero steeped in troubled thought, enquired what was bothering him. Holmes replied that he was ruminating on what the dog did during the night. "But the dog did absolutely nothing through the night," exclaimed Watson. "That’s precisely what I am wondering about," said Holmes.

What has suddenly brought this charming episode to mind is the total and indeed incomprehensible lack of comment on a startling statement the redoubtable S. Ramadoss, the founder-president of Tamil Nadu’s Pattali Makkal Katchi - roughly translatable as "Proletarian Party" - made over a fortnight ago. Having had the bitter experience of an alliance with J. Jayalalithaa five years back, he had changed sides this time around when Tamil Nadu went to the polls. His party, the PMK, is thus a partner in the DMK-led ruling coalition in the state. In his extraordinary statement Ramadoss predicted with an air of certainty that his son, Anbumani, currently Union minister for health and family welfare, would be "chief minister of Tamil Nadu by 2011."

Astonishingly, there hasn’t been even a squeak on this, leave alone strident comment. Maybe, no one took the paternal prognostication seriously. But then there should at least have been derisive laughter. In any case, some snide and biting remarks were expected from those who are working overtime to prepare the ground for the ascension to the chief minister’s gaddi, long before the decade’s end, of M.K. Stalin, the cherished son of M. Karunanidhi, the DMK patriarch and now Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for the fifth time. The improbably named Stalin has had a long apprenticeship as the Crown Prince. Probably the hordes rooting for him did not wish to "dignify" Ramadoss’ forecast by taking note of it.

Or perhaps the reason for the lack of reaction to Ramadoss’ peep into the future is not its lack of credibility but something entirely different: that dynasties have by now become such an integral part of the Indian political system that no one bats an eyelid when fond parents with any kind of powerbase go to bizarre lengths to promote their progeny. With a few honourable exceptions, almost every party has become a family firm.

Yet the time was when the term dynasty was a pejorative, largely because there was then only one dynasty, and everyone outside the Congress (I) deemed it his or her duty to attack it. One particularly angry "intellectual" once demanded that dynasty should be spelled "Die-Nasty." Interestingly, even as dynasties have proliferated at a rate that leaves nuclear proliferation in the shade, the Gandhi Dynasty remains paramount among them all, if only because the area of operation of others is limited, often confined to a single state. In Salman Rushdie’s memorable phrase, it continues to be "a dynasty to beat Dynasty in a Delhi to rival Dallas." And now that even the BJP is treating, albeit hesitatingly, one of the Gandhis as a mini-icon, who can raise an accusing finger at the clan’s core, headed by Sonia Gandhi, with son Rahul as the rather reluctant Dauphine?

Only a few days before the PMK supremo spoke, the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar anointed his daughter Supriya Sule as the next boss of the NCP. There were a few titters, obviously because this party once used to denounce dynastic succession and foreign-born leaders. Also, there was some suppressed resentment within the party ranks. But both subsided rapidly. Everyone came to terms with the prevailing order of Indian politics.

Even those that had harboured the ambition to succeed the Maharashtra strongman moved out of the way with apparent cheerfulness. They applauded the decision to nominate her as the party’s candidate for a Rajya Sabha vacancy, and cheered even more loudly when - with the Congress support that could hardly be denied - she was elected to the Upper House of Parliament unopposed. She is now ready to claim her inheritance, and this inheritance, you can be absolutely certain, would not be one of loss. But why cavil at Sharadrao and Supriya when in almost every major and minor state some son is raring to rise to the office presently occupied by dad?

In the key state of Uttar Pradesh, with Assembly elections due in four months’ time, for instance, the ruling Samajwadi Party’s drum-beaters are already proclaiming that chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh, would be chief minister very soon. Asked what would happen to Mulayam, they assert, "Netaji (which is how followers address him) would move to bigger things in New Delhi, while Bhaiyya would rule in Lucknow." In Jammu and Kashmir, the fight for power is between the father-and-son duo (Farooq and Omar Abdullah) and the father-and-daughter team (Mufti and Mehbooba Sayeed). But for the disagreement over the future of his son Murleedharan, the veteran K. Karunakaran in Kerala would not have had any problem with the Congress high command.

Of course, before the line of succession in a dynasty is stabilised things can take a nasty turn. Way back in the early Eighties when the time came for succession to the towering Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Farooq’s claim was fiercely challenged by his brother-in-law, G.M. Shah, better known as "Gulsha." With Indira Gandhi’s full support, Farooq won hands down. Within two years, however, she summarily sacked Farooq and installed Gulsha as chief minister, a disaster that Rajiv later rued.

In Maharashtra, the struggle for the mantle of the ageing Tiger, Balasaheb Thackeray, first led to a split in the Shiv Sena and now to a fight in the streets between the followers of son Uddhav and estranged nephew, Raj. Against this backdrop it is perhaps natural for people to hope for two things. First, that if Anbumani Ramadoss does ever make it to the chief minister’s chair in Tamil Nadu, he would give a better account of himself than he is doing in Delhi. And secondly, that the race between Stalin and him would be settled by means other than those employed in the municipal elections in Chennai.

See online : Asian Age

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