Kashmir dispensed with princely rule two generations and more ago – yet there are plenty of crown princes still at hand. The political order has changed utterly but there’s no shortage of aspirants to power whose status has in large part been inherited.
That was brought home to me while reading the new and much talked about book by A.S. Dulat, the former head of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). In Kashmir: the Vajpayee years, Dulat asserts that the ‘four likely players for the future in Kashmir are Omar Abdullah, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Mehbooba Mufti , and Sajad Lone.
You can argue with that, of course. Shouldn’t someone from the Geelani-wing of Kashmir’s politics be part of the mix? And you could take the view that a former intelligence chief, whose professional life has been about advancing Delhi’s cause in Kashmir, is not a disinterested observer.
A.S. Dulat, however, has spent a lot of time talking to Kashmiris of all political hues. His assessment – which he defended at the London launch of his book, where I moderated a discussion between him and Dr Farooq Abdullah – deserves attention. What is particularly striking is that all four of those he names as key players in Kashmir’s future are dynastic political figures. Indeed, two of them are third generation political leaders.
Princes and maharajahs are no longer our masters. Those royal families around the world that continue to rule are, with a handful of exceptions, simply emblems of national identity. And those that have airs and graces but no throne – there are a few – seem as if they are stranded on some Jurassic Park of human governance, living fossils from a bygone era.
Yet the hereditary principle, that political power comes down from father to son (and just occasionally to daughter or son-in-law), or moves within the household from husband to wife, remains evident in dictatorships and democracies alike.
Sons and daughters of political families should not of course be discouraged from entering public life or disqualified from office. They may well have imbibed a sense of civic duty, and they in any event now require the endorsement of an electorate. But politics is too often a family business and that limits the space for others to make their mark. To put it bluntly, the preponderance of political dynasties constrains the democratic process.
The Indian National Congress, one of the most successful political parties anywhere in the world – the movement which achieved India’s independence and has dominated post-independence politics – has cleaved to one family with an allegiance which feels intensely anti-meritocratic. If Rahul Gandhi makes it to the top job, he will be the fourth successive generation of that family to lead the country. The world’s biggest democracy is also the most dynastic.
American politics is also more about family than makes political sense. Going as far back as 1989, the only incumbent of the White House other than a Bush or a Clinton is the current one, Barack Obama. And both a Bush and a Clinton are in contention to succeed Obama. There’s a real prospect that the only choice American voters will face in next year’s Presidential election will be between these rival dynasties.
It’s not quite the same in Britain. You have to go back well over 200 years, to the era of the Pitts and the Grenvilles, to find families in which both father and son became prime minister. But of late, a different form of dynasty has resurfaced – not about surname but school tie. David Cameron is the nineteenth British prime minister to have attended the elite and hugely expensive Eton College – his great rival within the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, hopes to be the twentieth.
Part of the issue in Kashmir is the sad and troubling propensity for political violence. Two of Dulat’s four likely brokers of Kashmir’s future have taken on the mantle of a murdered father – and as well as the profound personal tragedies here, the distorting of the political process through premature and violent death clearly puts enormous pressure on the next generation to carry forward the father’s standard.
That has been evident across South Asia – in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. When a leader dies violently, the political legacy is championed most keenly within the family. Often wives and daughters have taken on that role. Indeed, one seasoned political observer has suggested that political dynasties have served to give women greater space in public life: ‘being part of a clan has helped women break through glass ceilings’, says the Berlin-based writer Leonid Bershidsky.
Across the region, it’s difficult to think of women leaders who have achieved success without being related to a male political leader. Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee are the ones that spring to mind as breaking the dynastic mould and making their own way.
On balance, Bershidsky argues, the darker side of dynastic politics outweighs what might be seen as the positives of family rule. ‘Wherever there are dynasties, there’s less competition for votes. There’s nothing wrong with members of prominent political figures wanting to serve the country. But there’s nothing wrong, either, with voters rejecting self-perpetuating government.’
India’s recent history is full of examples of voters rejecting dynastic leaders as well as embracing them. But the occasional assumption that parties and movements are family fiefdoms, and the confusing of the interests of dynasties and of those they claim to serve, chips away at confidence in the political system.
Democracy is not simply about elections. It is about the principle that those who are not born to position and privilege can aspire to lead and represent their communities as much as anyone else.
(Andrew Whitehead is a distinguished journalist. He worked with the BBC as correspondent for 35 years and later as Editor of BBC World Service).