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Indian sisters are doing it for themselves

Since the rise of the Gandhis, political influence in India has been hereditary. But while parliamen

Small decisions have a habit of coming back to bite us years later. When the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, becoming president of the ruling Congress party for a year in 1959, there is no evidence he was seeking to found a dynasty. He did not see that the move would embed "family politics" in the country's political system for generations.

Nehru's own father, Motilal, had been active in nationalist politics, but his premiership was devoted to institutionalising democracy and undermining hereditary rule by destroying the power of the maharajas and nawabs, India's princely leaders. A half-century later, the Nehru-Gandhi family remains at the centre of the polity. The principle of nepotism, of politics as a family business, is now more deeply entrenched than at any point since independence. At the same time, however, assertive new grass-roots movements are revolutionising the way governance works at the regional level.

Indira Gandhi's ascent to the premiership was almost accidental. In the months before Nehru's death in 1964, she had become his gatekeeper, supervising visitors and the government files that were brought to the dying leader. When he was gone, she was left in a vulnerable position: a widow with no security and no home, because the house she had lived in with her father was being turned into a museum.

When the new prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, offered her a seat in parliament "to maintain continuity" and a position as minister for information and broadcasting, she accepted, in part because it would give her a salary and somewhere to live. She turned out to be more assertive as a politician than had been anticipated. During a crisis with Pakistan, she flew to Kashmir to visit troops and was lauded by the press as being "the only man in the cabinet".

Then, in 1966, something unexpected happened: Shastri died. To the Congress party high command, Indira Gandhi looked like a suitable stopgap. She would be a malleable figurehead, they thought, drawing the nation together in the spirit of her late father while the party machine made the important decisions. It was a grave misjudgement: Gandhi thrived in power, trouncing both her enemies and her backers. Apart from a short break in the late 1970s when she was voted out of office, she ruled India until her assassination by her bodyguards in 1984.

During her premiership, Indira Gandhi changed the way in which politics worked. Her methods were more autocratic than Nehru's had ever been and she lacked his belief in the importance of institutions. As the idealism of India's freedom movement dissipated down the years, she relied on regional leaders or contractors who could deliver results or "vote banks" from their constituencies. The very structure of the Congress Party ceased to be democratic, and when she was replaced after her death by her son Rajiv - a socially popular Indian Airlines pilot with no ministerial experience - it did not seem altogether surprising.

Rajiv was a well-intentioned moderniser who sought to undo some of the sclerotic apparatus of state socialism that had left India with a stagnant economy, but he had no overarching plan. When he, too, was murdered, by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1991, it appeared the days of dynasty were over. His children were too young for a career in parliament, and several vibrant new parties were bubbling up across the country. Rajiv's shy and reticent Italian widow, Sonia, retreated and refused absolutely to become involved in the political squabbling. After all, it had killed her husband and mother-in-law.

Driving seat

In 1998, with Congress in poor shape and nervous that the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata (BJP) might become India's natural party of government, Sonia Gandhi changed her mind. Although it was not until 2004 that a Congress-led administration returned to power in Delhi, she proved to be an effective and instinctive politician. Her chosen weapon was repudiation: she had the opportunity to become prime minister, but stepped back, saying, "Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal." It was a popular response in a land where rejection of material ambition strikes a strong religious chord.

While she became the silent voice behind the throne, the technocrat Manmohan Singh was installed as prime minister and his government was re-elected in 2009. The economic reforms that Singh launched in the 1990s when he was finance minister have transformed India, lifting millions out of poverty and launching a new, aspirational middle class.

As Singh's government reaches the middle of its second term, it is losing popularity even as the other parties fail to capitalise on its mistakes. Instead, like so many countries, India is suffused with a populist, media-led loathing for politicians. Given that one out of every two people who lives in a democracy is Indian, this is a worrying shift. A tradition of public protest dating back to the colonial period is spreading. In April, an elderly Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare led a public fast against corruption in public life (see also page 36). As a method of exerting pressure, it was certainly effective: the government agreed to introduce a severe law against corruption - the Jan Lokpal Bill - and to give Hazare and his nominees a hand in drafting it. Politicians who attempted to join his fast were chased away but movie stars were welcomed. Soon, Bollywood players were joined by business people such as the industrialist Adi Godrej, who said: "Corporate India does support his cause. We are with him."

With the Middle East convulsed by change, it was understandable that the Indian media should draw parallels between Hazare's pro­test and the events in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The spontaneous support expressed for his cause has more in common with the Tea Party movement in the US, however, than the Arab spring: it grew out of a sense among educated, middle-class people that the government was aloof, and that something indefinable but important was being taken away from them. The protests sprang from pent-up frustration and a sense that, even as India is growing richer, corruption is deepening and professionals are becoming isolated from the workings of government. The country might have one of the largest middle classes in the world, but its members are kept out of the driving seat. Even business tycoons share the growing feeling that India's
political leaders are part of an alien tribe, with which they have little in common.

The structural causes of this are various: politicians in India tend to be rich but some also have criminal cases pending against them; in certain states, entering into politics is the best and occasionally the only way of securing protection against prosecution. But the most fundamental cause is the narrowing of access to representation in democratic institutions.

If you do not come from an established ruling family, you have almost no chance of progressing in national politics, unless you join an ideological organisation such as the BJP or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), where lineage is not important and progress is more often based on ability.
Last year, I made a study of how each MP in India's lower house, the Lok Sabha, had reached parliament. The findings showed that the younger you were, the more likely you were to have "inherited" a place in the chamber. Nearly half of all MPs aged 50 or under are hereditary, selected to contest a seat primarily because they are the children of senior politicians. No MP over the age of 80 is hereditary; every MP under the age of 30 is hereditary. The situation is most serious in the Congress party, where every MP under the age of 35 is the son or daughter of a politician.

Extending the study across the whole Lok Sabha, I found that 33 of the youngest 38 MPs had entered parliament on the grounds of birth. Out of the other five, three progressed through the ranks of the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party and Communist Party on merit; one was given a break because he was an established student leader-cum-mafioso; and the other was hand-picked for a parliamentary career by Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia. Rahul is an MP and heir to the Congress mantle, but has so far concentrated on structural party reorganisation and low-key, village-level campaigning and shows no inclination to take a prime ministerial role.

What this arrangement has done is to exclude an enormous pool of talented people from national politics. Instead of the system working as a participatory democracy, where merit is the main determinant of who is picked to contest a seat, family has become the central factor.

Those on the centre left or centre right of the political spectrum - people who do not wish to join the BJP or the Communists - have little reason to participate, because they know they can never progress at a national level. It is a partially articulated frustration, a sense of impotence that politics is being received passively, which lies behind the recent inchoate rage at corruption and politicians. This has enabled Hazare and another campaigner, the multimillionaire yoga instructor and holy man Swami Ramdev, to achieve considerable popularity by saying that everything must change.

Rebel alliance

As ever in India, a country with 714 million voters, no single trend should be seen as definitive. It is Schrödinger's country, in that it exists - like Schrödinger's cat - in several forms simultaneously. Much of the important political decision-making now happens not in Delhi, but in the regions. In a large state such as Uttar Pradesh (where the population nearly equals that of Brazil) or a prosperous state such as Gujarat (where factories can be set up so fast that foreign business people say they feel as if they are in China), the chief minister has the power. Debates and alliances at state level often have little to do with machinations in Delhi.

Since the 1980s, caste-based and regional parties have become ever more important, and no party can hope to come to power at the centre without a complex web of electoral alliances spanning more than a dozen of the smaller parties. This extreme form of democracy makes politics in India potentially highly flexible, and allows people from less privileged backgrounds, in some situations, to achieve a level of success that would certainly elude them in Britain.

A trend in recent years has been the rise of self-made female politicians with considerable clout. Travellers to India a century ago often noted how difficult it was to meet or even see women. They were kept in seclusion and rarely ventured out of doors except in an encompassing veil. Beginning in the 1920s, the independence movement struck against this tradition. Mahatma Gandhi called purdah "a vicious and brutal custom" and the feminist lawmaker Hansa Mehta said: "Any evil practised in the name of religion cannot be guaranteed by the constitution." (Dr Mehta also persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt that Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should read not "All men are born free and equal" but "All human beings are born free and equal" - disagreeing with her assertion "that the word 'men' used in this sense was generally accepted to include all human beings".)

Wonder women

After independence, progress towards sexual equality was linked to the idea of national pro­gress, though it was not until later that upper-class leaders such as Indira Gandhi were joined by women who had risen from nowhere. But following recent state elections that changed the balance of power across the regions and hence in the ruling coalition in Delhi, this text message was circulated:

India Now Ruled By
AMMA in the South
DIDI in the East
BEHENJI in the North
AUNTY in the Capital
MADAM at the Centre
& the WIFE at Home.
And they say it's a Man's World!

It is worth decoding the message. "Madam" is Sonia Gandhi. "Aunty" is Sheila Dikshit, the well-heeled chief minister of Delhi. Both of them attained influence by conventional means, Madam through her husband's status, and Aunty by being a long-time Gan­dhi family loyalist. In the world's largest democracy, it is the other three - Amma, Didi and Behenji - who offer an example of transformation that deserves to be noticed beyond India's borders.

In each case, they succeeded in building up a mass movement, trouncing their rivals and rewriting the script. In May this year, Mamata Banerjee (known as Didi - or "elder sister") became the first female chief minister of West Bengal, ousting the longest-serving elected communist government in the world. Like other regional leaders, Banerjee wields huge influence over the almost 100 million citizens of her state, centred on the British colonial capital of India, Kolkata.

Unpretentious, with her hair tied back and usually wearing flip-flops and a sari, Banerjee has been a firebrand for most of her life. Back in 1990 when she was a 35-year-old political organiser, she was cracked over the head by a Communist Party thug during a demonstration and spent months in hospital with a fractured skull.

Behenji, or "respected sister", is Mayawati, who has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh on and off since the mid-1990s. Even more than Mamata Banerjee, she represents a grass-roots, democratic revolution. One of nine children, she was raised on the edge of Delhi in a poor family of Dalits or former "untouchables". As she wrote in her autobiography: "From a very early age, I learned to hate the caste system with all my might."

When Mayawati entered the Lok Sabha at the age of 33, she was the first woman from such a background to achieve this feat - and her Bahujan Samaj Party has completely rewritten the political equation in northern India.

Amma, or "mother" (whose name is J Jayala­lithaa), has done something similar in the big southern state of Tamil Nadu, though her background was more privileged and she was previously a successful film actor. She has been re-elected as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

In India today, much less emphasis is placed on the physical appearance of female politicians than in most western democracies. The obligation to look good (but not too good) and to be assessed according to your looks and weight is absent. The pressure goes the other way: an overgroomed female politician might be distrusted.

Success at a very high level depends on being detached from the usual wifely duties. None of the women mentioned here is connected to any man, except, in several cases, to a dead one.

The nicknames they have been given - Mother, Aunty or Sister - are a way of desexualising them and incorporating them into a larger, national family. Mamata Banerjee has described herself as "a simple man", and Mayawati practises a curious, asexual public iconography.

Her stone statues - and there are many in Uttar Pradesh - usually depict her in a strong, masculine stance: feet apart, hair cut short, looking straight ahead, holding a long-handled handbag at ankle level. The message appears to be: "Don't think of me as a man or a woman, think of me as Mayawati."

When India held its first general election in 1951, many commentators, including Winston Churchill, thought that giving the universal franchise to a large, uneducated populace with diverse linguistic, religious and caste ties was a monumental mistake. They were to be proved wrong: for all its manifest failings, Indian democracy has been one of the great political success stories of the past half-century, and is a beacon to other Asian nations where people live under greatly more oppressive regimes.

At this year's state assembly elections, voter turnout was staggeringly high, even in consti­tuencies in West Bengal where Maoist rebels with their outmoded ideology had ordered a boycott of the polls. It was not unusual to find an 85 per cent turnout - a much higher figure than in most other democracies.

Indian electorates have been uncompromising in rejecting state governments that do not deliver on their promises. The main problem now is how to extend this instinct for democracy to the national political parties, and how to make them more open and accountable. It is not enough to have the right to vote, though that is a precious thing - in a healthy democracy, the people should also have the opportunity to be voted for, regardless of who their parents were.

Patrick French is the author of "India: a Portrait" (Allen Lane, £25) and editor of

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India