When India attained independence 69 years ago, it broke free from two kinds of dynastic rule. It severed ties with the British crown, and it integrated more than 500 princely states into the Indian union. But over the decades, another form of dynastic rule emerged in the country: that of elected political dynasties. The best known of these dynasties is the Nehru-Gandhi family, which dominated the prime ministership and the leadership of the Congress party after Independence.
But looking only at the Congress can obscure the fact that political dynasties, in different forms and to different degrees, exist in a number of political parties in India. Some of these dynasties are at the helm of their parties, among them the Karunanidhi family of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party, and the Badals of the Akali Dal. But many other families are found burrowed within parties, dominating units at the local level, or occupying positions in party organisations. They are less well known, but no less important. So, to fully examine the extent to which Indian politics is dynastic, we have to look beyond the Congress and the highest echelons of other parties.
I began to examine this question in 2009, when I started collecting data on the family backgrounds of Lok Sabha MPs in the twenty-first century (in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 parliaments) in collaboration with fellow political scientists Anjali Bohlken and Simon Chauchard. We defined a dynastic politician as one who had a family member precede them in electoral politics. This included family members holding positions in directly elected political bodies such as the Lok Sabha or the Vidhan Sabha, indirectly elected bodies such as the Rajya Sabha, and in political parties, as office-bearers or electoral candidates. Using this definition, we began tracing the family backgrounds of MPs by reading national and regional newspapers, memoirs and biographies, Lok Sabha Who’s Whos, previously published work on political parties, and the returns published by the Election Commission of India. Some of this research culminated in my recently published edited volume, Democratic Dynasties. The data and arguments cited in this essay appear in that book, and in joint work with Bohlken that appears in a separate statistical paper.
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