Are political dynasties falling out of favor in South Asia? In my most recent Wall Street Journal column – read it here – I look at the Indian Nehru-Gandhis, possibly the political family with the world’s longest pedigree in national politics. As Rahul Gandhi, 47, becomes the sixth member of his family to lead the 132-year-old Congress Party, I contend that a combination of circumstances and personal qualities will make it difficult for Gandhi to return to power.
Over the past seven years, battered by a string of electoral defeats, Gandhi has delved into the public imagination from prime minister on hold to faltering underdog. Each defeat amplifies questions about its inherited privileges, its heated political program and its lack of political skills.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his well-oiled Bharatiya Janata party, Mr. Gandhi faces an enemy that is both popular and ruthless. As the 2019 general election draws near, Congress must grapple with arguably its biggest challenge since India’s independence seven decades ago. The big question about the party is no longer “will it take back power?” “But” will he survive? Mr. Modi makes no secret of his ambition to wipe Congress off the map of India for good.
Of course, South Asia is not the only part of the world where political dynasties flourish. (Just ask Justin Trudeau or Shinzo Abe.) But until recently, the region offered a handful of families exceptionally hospitable conditions in which to pass on power as a family heirloom.
If Rahul Gandhi ever became Prime Minister of India, he would follow his father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) to work. Bangladesh’s electoral politics can more or less boil down to a bitter – and sometimes unintentionally comical – feud between the struggling begums: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (daughter of the country’s founding father) and Begum Khaleda Zia (widow of the main rival. of the founder). Both have offspring waiting behind the scenes to one day succeed them.
In Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is the nephew of former President Junius Jayewardene. The list of Pakistani prime ministers includes Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto Zardari; Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, served as president.
What makes the Indian subcontinent so welcoming to political dynasties? Perhaps these are just the usual perks of a famous surname – familiarity with voters, access to networks, fundraising opportunities – magnified in partially modernized societies. Or maybe it just reflects the reality that in many countries there is nothing strange about judging someone by their family. In India, for example, it’s not uncommon for a stranger on a train to ask this crucial question: What is your father doing?
Perhaps South Asians turned to English-speaking figures trained in the West like Nehru and Bhutto out of a desire to be represented by those who could command a minimum of respect from their former colonial masters. Political dynasties can also boast the added benefit of providing a sense of continuity and stability in a rapidly changing world, in that sense playing a role similar to that of a titular monarchy in places as far apart as the United Kingdom and Thailand.
Despite these advantages, there is no doubt that the political dynasts of South Asia never had it harder than they do today. In Pakistan, opponents regularly mock Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for his Anglicized Urdu accent and lack of credibility on the streets. His Pakistani People’s Party has shrunk to a rump with little influence outside the family stronghold of Sindh province. As for that other famous Pakistani political clan, the Sharifs, The New York Times summed up the next generation’s dilemma by asking whether Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of recently ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is “on the brink of power, or in prison “.
For Rahul Gandhi, the road to power has never seemed steeper. For many Indians, the idea of being ruled by one family seems increasingly anachronistic, even degrading. On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party defeated Congress in elections in two states – the industrialized state of Gujarat in western India and Himachal Pradesh in the north. It comes just nine months after the BJP reached a staggering four-fifths majority in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state.
It is too early to say for sure that the Nehru-Gandhis are on the verge of political extinction. In Gujarat, Gandhi waged a heated campaign and fought harder than expected. But as the Congress Party’s string of electoral defeats grows, it’s not too early to wonder whether India has moved beyond the idea of being ruled by a member of its most famous political dynasty.