Ruminations: Ebbing family control

Tags: Opinion

Dynastic parties show there is little chance of redemption or turnaround unless they have the blessing of the dynasty

It was inevitable that Ram Gopal Yadav, the low-profile and avuncular founder member of the Samajwadi Party would be reinstated in his role in the party after his sudden expulsion last month. In a straightforward way, he had won the inner-party battle with Amar Singh, who returned to the party fold after five years and became a Rajya Sabha member. Singh’s sullen acceptance of the decision, when he said that he had “no option” but to go with SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav on the issue, reveals more than it conceals – an acknowledgment that his stock in the Samajwadi family has undergone a change. Ram Gopal is back as the SP leader in the Rajya Sabha apart from being spokesperson.

Five years back, when a similar power struggle had taken place in the party, and the forces within it had been aligned almost on the very lines they were this time around, Mulayam had followed the obvious course by parting ways with Singh. At a personal level, though, Singh had a line open to Mulayam all through. This was indeed how he was back in favour, though it took a while. That, though, is another story.

Returning to the latest development, what is surprising is not Ram Gopal Yadav’s rehabilitation into the party fold but the fact that he was expelled, with Mulayam taking Amar Singh’s side. In dynastic parties – and in the Samajwadi Party this was made amply evident during the Lok Sabha elections – the family takes precedence over so-called outsiders. This important rule was cast aside, even though for a brief period, in Ram Gopal’s case last month.

These are confused signals. It is possible that cracks are appearing in the power bases of family fiefdoms. In a roundabout way, there are signs of this even in the Congress party that represents the most influential political dynasty in India. Over the past few years, the Congress has seen the preponderance of party veterans outside the family who have been successful in keeping Rahul Gandhi from actually becoming party chief. On the one hand, it indicates that vested interests are reluctant to yield space to the Congress GenNext despite Rahul’s periodic show of impatience at not being given sufficient elbow room to give the Congress an all-new direction.

What keeps ‘outsiders’ in the field of play in a high-stakes game? The trick is lies in being useful. In Amar Singh’s case, there is little doubt that he brings something to the table. That is how he has made friends and proceeded to help them, sometimes getting them out of the stickiest changes. How does he maintain his primacy? It happens through a modification of the Stockholm Syndrome. He makes people dependent enough on him to the point that they believe his departure will seriously imperil their future prospects. With Mulayam getting on in years, there will always be a place for Amar Singh.

Something on similar lines is happening in the Congress. The old guard with a list of IOUs and a party leader who is progressively distancing herself from the street fights, have found something of a common ground. The net result is the extended probation of the Young Turks, which is keeping getting them to strain at the leash, but evidently without result.

Such developments in dynastic families are invariably a consequence of the weakening position of the patriarch. This is true of both the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, leading second-string leaders who were earlier supplicants to demand greater roles in party affairs. In smaller degrees or more, similar developments can be seen in other dynastic parties across India, like the DMK, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference – to name a few. The Nationalistic Congress Party, despite the prominence of Sharad Pawar and his daughter, has benefited from the influence of non-family members – like a well-connected Maharashtra leader who gets on well with politicians across the spectrum. Looking beyond the immediate, it becomes apparent that the outsiders who hold sway in dynastic parties, are not necessarily those who bring about an advantage in electoral politics. The influence they wield in the party is often related to the influence they wield outside it.

The reason for this is a little long-winded. In the twilight of their political careers, the heads of dynastic families who are well past their prime, would rather feather their nest than look ahead to see their party grow. Often this is the prime motivating source, with their place already secure in the country’s political lexicon. Outsiders seize upon this route to enter the inner circle. How long they stay there depends on how adept they are at power play.

Essentially, this difference between dynastic and cadre-based parties, which is becoming increasingly apparent in India, is the one that determines the longevity of a party – whether or not it fades away with the ebbing of the family hold over it. And dynastic parties are beginning to show that there is little chance of redemption or of a turnaround by democratising them because in the public mind, there is no space for outsiders unless they have the blessing of the dynasty.


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