Thursday 30 March 2023

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Family First politics


Such family-run parties survive so long as the “supremo” is alive and is able to exercise his authority over competing party factions. But what happens when the leader at the top begins to lose his grip?

In the build-up to the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections, I was travelling with Akhilesh Yadav on a campaign tour. Our morning breakfast shoot was in a room where the walls had portraits of prominent leaders of the original Socialist party. I noticed that there was no picture of the veteran socialist from Maharashtra, Madhu Dandavate, and pointed this out to Mr Yadav. He promised to set it right. Almost five years on, I am not sure if Dandavate has made it to the hallowed portals of the Samajwadi Party’s gallery of leaders but after witnessing the recent family soap opera playing out in Lucknow, I rather think Dandavate, a scholarly old-world politician, would prefer to have opted out.

For a long time it has been obvious that the Samajwadi Party under Mulayam Singh Yadav bears little resemblance to its socialist-Lohiaite origins. A party that once claimed to stand up to the Nehruvian dynasty has become a prisoner of its own Yadav family raj. The ideological moorings have long since withered away, replaced by loose patron-client networks built around one family. Even the few influential party “outsiders” like an Azam Khan or an Amar Singh are either sub-regional satraps — Khan, for example, can claim to “control” the Rampur belt — or are seen to service the needs of a private limited family business. Amar Singh, for example, was Mulayam’s conduit to the Delhi durbar and, as the supreme leader has now admitted, helped him stay out of jail.

Such family-run parties survive so long as the “supremo” is alive and is able to exercise his authority over competing party factions. But what happens when the leader at the top begins to lose his grip? Succession planning in such parties is tough, more so when the factions are controlled by different members of the same family. As Akhilesh Yadav has discovered, his real “enemy” lies within the parivar in the shape of his uncle Shivpal. Akhilesh may be perceived as the youthful, vote-catching leader but the party organisation is controlled by the older generation represented by his more crafty uncle. Akhilesh may project his energetic, clean-cut image as his USP at election time, but the process of candidate selection and alliances is still largely controlled by the uncle. In normal times, Mulayam would have had the last word but when the king begins to age, his stranglehold begins to loosen and he can no longer control the succession wars.

A parallel could be drawn with the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray in the autumn of his political life. Divided between putra-moh (love for the son) and the ambitions of a charismatic nephew, the Sena supremo eventually plumped for his son. This left the nephew Raj, who claimed to have a natural affinity with the Sena cadres, out in the cold. Raj, in a sense, was left with little option but to either accept cousin Uddhav’s leadership or form his own outfit. He chose the latter option and while he may have failed to make an impact in elections, he did end up breaking the Sena’s traditional Marathi Manoos constituency.

A less discussed case study of family wars in politics is perhaps that of the original dynasty: the Nehru-Gandhis. When Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash, it appeared that Indira Gandhi’s well-designed plan to have her son as the obvious political heir was thrown into disarray. For a while, daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi laid claim to the legacy by forming the Sanjay Vichar Manch. But here again, the mother chose her direct bloodline by virtually forcing Rajiv Gandhi to move from being an airline pilot to her chosen successor. Who is to argue that Maneka wouldn’t have been a future Congress prime minister if only she had received her mother-in-law’s blessings?

Interestingly, in Mulayam’s case, he doesn’t seem to be willing to officially anoint his son as his undisputed heir. It is this vacillation, bordering on outright rejection, that has compromised Akhilesh’s position: Without his father’s blessings, Akhilesh cannot count on assured leadership of the Samajwadi Party. Clearly, even after being a relatively successful chief minister for five years, he hasn’t been able to shake off the tag of being in office only because he is his father’s son. In that sense, he really has to make a choice like a Raj Thackeray: break away and form a party with his well-wishers or accept a division of power with his uncle.

While a breakaway move on the eve of a major election may be a high-risk proposition, Akhilesh, who clearly enjoys more popular support than his uncle, could seek solace in another less talked about example from south India. In 1995, N Chandrababu Naidu ousted his father-in-law, the cinema idol NT Rama Rao, to become Andhra Pradesh chief minister. I had interviewed NTR at the time and he had complained bitterly about his son-in-law’s “betrayal”. When I asked NTR who should succeed him, he turned longingly to his second wife, Lakshmi Parvathi, who was sitting next to him. As it transpired, Chandrababu outwitted NTR and Lakshmi Parvathi to take over the Telugu Desam. Like Mulayam now, NTR too then was an ageing septuagenarian. When we asked Naidu why he had gone against the party founder, his answer was terse: “To save the party!”

Whether Akhilesh can do a Chandrababu is uncertain: Unlike Lakshmi Parvathi, Shivpal is not a political novice and nor was the TDP then as badly divided as the Samajwadi Party is today. Whatever happens eventually, the plight of the party holds out a warning to privately-run dynastical parties: When the organisation becomes subservient to family, a smooth leadership change cannot be guaranteed, especially when the family is as large as the Yadav clan.

Post-script: It may be purely coincidental that the Samajwadi Party is splintering in the week in which India’s oldest business family, the House of the Tatas, also finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. In a world of frenzied competition, it may be time finally to say “Ta-ta” to family succession and embrace a more transparent, merit-driven leadership change, be it in politics or business.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.


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