The day before hoardings appeared in Uttar Pradesh demanding that Priyanka Gandhi be given the Phulpur seat so that she could help her ‘sick’ mother and ‘overburdened’ brother I happened to be discussing dynastic democracy in the most unlikely place. I write this week from Japan and the discussion I speak of took place over lunch in a lovely garden that sat on a cliff high above the sunlit waters of the Pacific Ocean. This lunch party was in a seaside resort two hours from Tokyo where I had gone at the invitation of a Japanese friend who had also invited some of her friends among whom was a lady whose brother, father and grandfather had all been politicians. This information was revealed when I said that one of India’s biggest political problems was dynastic democracy. As it is a subject that I feel so deeply about that it inspired me to write my book Durbar I explained at some length how the example set by the Gandhi family was now being imitated right down to the village level and how most Indian political parties had become private limited companies.
The Japanese guests at lunch, in that garden filled with sunlight and sea breezes, allowed me to expound upon my theory for several minutes before someone pointed out that ‘political families’ were very much the norm in Japan. The present Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Kan Abe, and father Shintaro Abe, were both in politics and his wife Yoko Kishi is the daughter of former prime minister, Nobushe Kishi. “You see,” the lady from the political family explained, “what happens is that in some political constituencies they virtually insist upon a family member taking the seat because they associate the family’s power in politics with their own. So its not always such a bad thing.”
On the drive back to Tokyo I thought about this as we passed a coastline covered in massive power plants, ports and factories and drove on a modern highway through countryside that had remained pristine despite such visible signs of 21st century infrastructure. My thoughts went back to our own dear Bharat Mata and the wretchedness and decay that is the general mood of rural India and the squalor that is the defining characteristic of our cities. Perhaps, I would have been more accepting of dynastic democracy if India had looked more like Japan and less like a country in a deep state of despair and decline. It is hard not to blame India’s backwardness on the Dynasty that has ruled for most of our years as an independent nation and yet this is not what the Congress is ever able to do.
So in their concerted efforts to combat Narendra Modi’s thunderous campaign across the country they now appear ready to offer up what some Congress politicians privately describe as their ‘brahmastra’. This ultimate weapon is none other than Priyanka Gandhi hence the hoardings in Allahabad that appeared last week carrying these words along side pictures of the Gandhi family. ‘Maiya ab rehti beemar, Bhaiya par badh gaya bhaar, Priyanka Phulpur sey baney ummedwaar.’ Here is a literal translation: mother now remains sick, brother is now carrying a heavier load so Priyanka should be the candidate from Phulpur.
For those who may have forgotten, this used to be the constituency of Jawaharlal Nehru. So is this good enough reason for his great granddaughter to now inherit it? Has Priyanka shown any sign that she is worthy of being in public life? By the standards of the Gandhi family, she most certainly has. Anyone who has seen her campaigning will vouch for the fact that she is far more comfortable in the company or ordinary Indians than her parents or brother ever were. One reason is that her Hindi is excellent and this gives her the ability to converse spontaneously – an ability her brother has yet to acquire. She has charm and charisma and this, combined with the Gandhi name (let’s forget about Vadra for now) certainly qualifies her as much as it qualified any other member of her family. But, is this enough to make her a worthy opponent for Modi? To answer this we need first to analyse why Modi has become so popular outside Gujarat.
The Congress believes that the only reason for his popularity is that he has the support of the media and that he is very skilled at using the social media to convey his message. This is less than the whole truth. The real reason why Modi has developed such a huge persona on the national stage is because he is the first political leader in a very long time who is trying to say something new. Despite the best efforts of Congress to trap him in the meaningless debate about secularism and communalism he has managed to change the agenda and make the next general election about governance and a new vision for India. This appeals to young people in villages and towns across India who are painfully aware of what it is like to live without clean water, sanitation, electricity and jobs. When Modi talks about the need for governance to become more important than government this is what they understand as the things that good governance can give them. An older generation of Indian voters were easily swayed by the charisma of the Gandhi name but it has less resonance with younger voters. This is why Modi makes such a point of addressing younger voters and especially those who will be voting in 2014 for the first time.
Can Priyanka Gandhi find a way of countering this by repackaging her family and its supposed achievements and sacrifices? Can Rahul Gandhi? Can Sonia Gandhi? These are the only questions that are now being asked in Congress circles because everyone knows that the Dynasty is all that is left of India’s oldest political party. So whatever the Japanese experience with dynastic democracy there is no question that where India is concerned it has done more harm than good. It has attracted to public life people who have not the smallest idea of serving their country or its people and a very big idea of how much fun political power can be. Dynastic democracy in an Indian context has proved to be no more than a very ugly extension of feudalism and because younger Indians seem to understand this Priyanka may not be the ‘brahmastra’ her supporters think she is.