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8 November 1999

In Asia, the dynasties still rule

Gandhi, Bhutto, Megawati: they all owe their positions to feudalism, not to merit. The result is an

By John Elliott

It is tempting, after watching the recent gyrations of two of South Asia’s dynastic female politicians, to argue that it is time for these old feudal-like families to fade from the scene. While Sonia Gandhi has been ineffectually leading her Congress Party in India to its worst general election defeat, Benazir Bhutto has been bleating on television from London about the state of Pakistan, now that an army general is trying to rescue the country from the corrupt chaos that she and her political rivals created.

Neither woman has contributed much to her country’s well-being, and the record of some of their dynastic predecessors is, to say the least, questionable. India has been ruled by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for all but nine of its 52 years since independence, and has little to show for it. Jawaharlal Nehru led the country to independence in 1947 and was a towering statesman; but his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister from the mid-1960s, dragged the country downhill by strengthening Nehru’s questionable economic controls and introducing corruption into high-level political life. (She also put India under a state of emergency in the late 1970s, for which she was jailed.)

Her son, Rajiv, who became prime minister after her assassination in 1984, tried to modernise a highly resistant country, but had limited success. Now Sonia, Rajiv’s Italian-born wife who became head of the dynasty when he was assassinated in 1991, and their children, Priyanka and Rahul, are carrying on the tradition.

Benazir has had two disastrous periods as prime minister, both ending in allegations of corruption (including $1.5 billion bribes) against her and Asif Ali Zardari, her avaricious, philandering husband. (Benazir is currently living abroad, having been convicted of corruption, while Zardari is in jail and facing further charges, including one of murdering his wife’s brother.) Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was prime minister in the 1970s till he was hanged by Pakistan’s last military ruler, was a hero to the rural masses but achieved little.

Asia is swamped with such dynasties. All, curiously, are currently headed by women who, like Sonia and Benazir, are more often than not the widows or daughters of assassinated former leaders. In Bangladesh there are two warring families, headed by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and the former prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the leader of Bangladesh’s independence movement and its first prime minister. Zia’s husband, General Ziaur Rahman, seized power after Mujib’s assassination and was himself assassinated. By destabilising successive governments, the feud between Hasina and Khaleda Zia stymies the development of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries.

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In Indonesia, Megawati, the daughter of the discredited former president Sukarno, has restored the family to political credibility and has just become the country’s popular vice-president. In Sri Lanka, there is President Chandrika Kumaratunga, part of the Bandaranaike dynasty, while further afield dynasties are represented by Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the former president of the Philippines, Cory Aquino. The small Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan keep it simple: they have hereditary monarchs.

These dynasties survive because their countries have strong feudal, tribal and hierarchical traditions and hereditary social structures – notably India’s caste system and old royal maharajahs, and Pakistan’s feudal landlords. An unsophisticated electorate respects their legacy and subscribes to the “devil you know is better than one you don’t” principle. It looks impressive that women frequently attain power, but it isn’t really. Gandhi, Hasina, Bhutto, Megawati and the others owe their power to their families – especially strong charismatic men who founded the dynasties – just as Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great did in pre-20th-century Europe. There were no female Richelieus or Gladstones or their equivalents, and there are none in south Asia now.

The dynasties provided transitional leadership as their countries developed political systems – more often than not to replace colonial rule. Yet while they have helped to build or restore democracy at some stage of their country’s history, they have subsequently failed to do much more.

In India, the Nehru-Gandhi national political dominance has been echoed in individual states with mixed results. Farooq Abdullah, the ineffectual chief minister of Kashmir, is the son of Sheikh Abdullah, a former chief minister and towering political figure. Farooq has recently launched his son, Omar, into national politics, as has Jaswant Singh, India’s highly successful foreign minister. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, the go-ahead chief minister, is the son-in-law of his predecessor.

All these individuals gain early experience living among politicians and watching their late fathers or husbands at work; but few are effective for long and even fewer develop any serious interest or ability in formulating and implementing policy.

Apart from Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto probably had the best background – and is thus the most disappointing. She was educated in the west (including Oxford, where she was president of the Union), and she watched her father in Pakistan and followed him on trips abroad. Her experiences, therefore, should have equipped her to be a modernising prime minister. Yet she represents the most glaring example of a family that should be swept from power, because Pakistan is being ruined socially and economically by powerful vested interests.

Second to Benazir’s family in terms of influence is the clan led by Nawaz Sharif, who was trying to position his dynasty at the head of Pakistan’s industrial elite till he was thrown out of power last month. Together the two families have established a stranglehold on political power and have milked the country: hence the welcome for the coup led by General Pervaiz Musharraf, who now has the difficult task of finding a way of restoring democratic rule without handing power back to either of these discredited dynasties. (Robin Cook should stop condemning the coup and realise that even military rule is preferable, for a transitional period, to the Bhutto-Sharif circus that has been in power for the past 11 years.)

The situation in India is not so clear-cut. The Gandhis are not basically venal – they have simply outlived their usefulness. They have prevented grass-roots development of the Congress Party, whose leadership has ossified. Sonia is surrounded by too many sycophantic older politicians, who have no power base other than the dynasty and who generally give her outdated advice.

They have overseen the rapid decline of the party since the early 1980s – its last two general election victories in 1984 and 1991 were due to sympathy votes that followed the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv. Now the party has become so directionless that only Sonia’s entry into party politics early last year kept it together through two general elections.

But this does not justify her existence. Indeed, her withdrawal from politics would be good for the development of Indian democracy. The Congress Party would break up and then rebuild itself, probably in alliance with the small regional and caste-based parties that have emerged to cater for the poor and the minorities who were once the mainstay of the Congress Party.

Though Sonia seems determined to stay as leader of the opposition, she was much better during the first six years of her widowhood, when she kept the dynastic aura alive as a remote and aloof figure who rarely spoke in public, but did receive foreign and other distinguished visitors. During this time she was unassailable, protected by her chakra, a Hindi word which means “protective halo”.

The point about a chakra, however, is that once the person steps outside its circle of protectiveness, it shatters and cannot be repaired. That happened in 1997, when she was sucked into front-line politics and started making a series of bad decisions. She supported corrupt regional politicians and was instrumental in bringing down the last Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Her rise seemed unstoppable, however, until 21 April this year, when she appeared on television to announce that she was staking a claim in the then political crisis to form the next government. Suddenly people realised that an Italian-born woman (and, even worse for the privileged middle class, a former Cambridge au pair) was within an ace of becoming India’s prime minister. Regional parties turned against her, as did the public mood in many parts of the country. She failed to form the government – and India was forced into an unnecessary general election where Congress did dismally, though Sonia was elected to parliament for the first time. With deft political footwork, her entourage deflected criticism from both Sonia and themselves and set up an “introspection committee” to find other causes for the defeat.

The future now looks bleak for Sonia: in parliament she is fighting way above her weight and looks out of place. She is also being hounded by new legal charges on a Bofors gun scandal that dates from Rajiv’s days as prime minister, and will have to lead her party into tough state elections early next year.

But Sonia could pull through and become a credible leader – maybe even prime minister – if she stops being aloof and abandons her links with corrupt regional satraps and recreates Congress as a party of principle that cares for the poor and minorities. In this way she would overcome her foreign origins and gain respect as an individual instead of a hereditary interloper.

Whether Sonia succeeds or fails, the next generation is waiting in the wings. Her daughter, Priyanka, who is in her late twenties, showed in the recent general election campaign that she has a natural feel for politics. She is a popular star who also boasts political savvy. There is also her quieter brother, Rahul.

It is unlikely that this clan can be unseated any time soon. Like the dynasties elsewhere in Asia, the Nehru-Gandhis benefit from their public exposure – and too many hangers-on benefit from keeping the dynasties alive for them to be easily discarded.

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