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Here’s looking at you kids
Two stars - Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal - sparkled in the just concluded round of state assembly elections by steering their parties to impressive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab respectively. Two others - 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 demographic shift as the leadership baton passes from an older generation to the next, all within the family.
The trend has been visible for some time. The 2012 assembly polls have only reinforced it with UP becoming the battleground for the scions of three political dynasties. Here, Akhilesh, Rahul and Jayant were the faces of their party campaigns. They crisscrossed the state, covering thousands of kilometres 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 took charge and ran the campaign without his father's help. That he managed the impossible, by bucking a historical trend and bringing an incumbent government back to power, has sealed the succession debate within the party in his favour.
It has been evident for many years that politics is increasingly a family business in India. But what the recent elections have underlined is that political parties themselves have become family-run companies, to be handed down from father to son (or daughter, as the case may be). Once upon a time, only the Congress could be accused of running on dynastic 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 if he belongs to the ruling family, is excised swiftly. Raj Thackeray, nephew of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, and Manpreet Badal, cousin to Sukhbir, were charged with "anti-party activities" and summarily expelled when they laid claim to the leadership.
Down south, DMK chief M Karunanidhi is still trying to decide who to make his political heir, but since the claimants are all his direct descendants, no-one has been axed. Karunanidhi has to choose between sons, M Azhagiri and M Stalin, and daughter Kanimozhi, who seems to have developed stronger political ambitions after her stint in jail.
Noted British historian and author Patrick French offered a stunning statistic in his recent book, India: A Portrait. He calculated that as many as 28 per cent of MPs in the current Lok Sabha are what he called "hereditary MPs", that is, they belong to blue-blooded political families. Describing it as a worrying phenomenon, he warned that "the tentacles of extended families were now winding themselves ever more tightly around India's body politic".
Mandate 2012 marks the hastening of a generational transition in political leadership. It also highlights the fact that the transition is largely a family affair. So while we may finally get our Barack Obama (who became the US President at 44) or David Cameron (who too was 44 when he assumed office in the UK) one day, it's most likely going to be the son (or daughter) of an established political leader.
Politics is indeed becoming a closed group but the new generation that is taking over is bringing with it interesting changes, usually for the better. Akhilesh, for instance, with his military school background and Australian postgraduate education, attempted a huge makeover of his party's medieval image for the elections. Some of his decisions are well known, like the promise of free laptops to those who finish Class XII and his refusal to give a party ticket to those with criminal records like D P Yadav. Others have not received as much publicity, such as his insistence on gender balance to correct the impression that his is a male-dominated party. Women make up 22 of the SP's 224 MLAs this time.
Akhilesh also put his foot down on celebrity campaigners from Bollywood. And for the first time, he introduced the concept of a computerised election war room, manned by tech-savvy youth, which was the nerve centre for data collection and information flow. He himself carried with him at all times an iPad on which he personally monitored the party's election campaign.
In Punjab, Sukhbir did a similar makeover. The old churidar-kurta clad, kirpan-carrying jathedar, who used to be the face of the Akali Dal in his father's times, has made way for younger, well-educated, English-speaking, tech-savvy Sikhs. And Sukhbir insisted that all his nominees start Facebook pages to keep in touch with their voters. He also showed himself to be in tune with the changing aspirations of the younger Akali voter, for whom agriculture has lost its appeal. The party's manifesto painted rosy pictures of transforming Punjab into an IT hub.
Scions of political families have the advantage of being born into politics and being groomed from childhood to take over the family business one day. It gives them a headstart. But this is a democracy and after the first lap, they have to earn their spurs in the court of the people. This was the lesson to Rahul and Jayant from the recent elections. Both had hoped that their family lineage would act as a lightning rod for voters. Recall the manner in which Rahul launched his UP campaign from great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru's constituency of Phulpur by garlanding his portrait. It didn't work. On polling day, voters made it clear that they want something more than just a famous name to go on. They want accessible leaders who can help them meet their surging aspirations.
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