From Gandhis to Abdullahs: Why Indian democracy is a fertile ground for modern-day dynasties

Mummy and me.
Mummy and me.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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The formal basis of dynastic rule in India was abolished three times over after India obtained independence in 1947, first with the integration of “princely states” into the Indian union, then when India severed even a symbolic association with the British crown by declaring itself a republic, and finally with legislation abolishing the system of zamindari, or hereditary land ownership. But new dynasties emerged through the democratic process, replacing those that were eliminated.

Now, in the twenty-first century, about a quarter of MPs in the directly elected lower house of Indian parliament (Lok Sabha) on average, have a dynastic background: 20% in the 2004 parliament, 30% in the 2009 parliament, and 22% in the 2014 parliament. Dynastic MPs are pervasive across political parties in parliament, irrespective of size, ideology, age, leadership, and support base.

These dynasties are mostly a democratic creation.

Pre-democratic aristocratic families (former princely rulers, or jagirdars or zamindars) comprise only a small percentage—an average of 3%—of MPs in India across the three parliaments.

India is not unique in the role that dynasties have come to play in its democracy. It lies squarely in the middle of the spectrum of democracies for which comparable data are available for a comparable time period. This spectrum is bounded at one extreme by the Philippines, in which fully half of all congresspersons in 2007 followed a relative into elected office, and at the other by Canada, in which 3% of the house of commons in 2011 was dynastic.

These “democratic dynasties” are a modern phenomenon, distinguished from traditional aristocracies in one key respect: their dependence on electoral endorsement. In a traditional aristocracy, birth is sufficient to guarantee entry. But in a democratic aristocracy, members must also win elections.

When it comes to democratic dynasties, then, we must ask questions not necessary in the case of traditional ones: how and why do members of a birth-based class obtain (or retain) positions through the electoral process? And what consequences, in turn, does the rise of political families have for this electoral process?

These democratic dynasties are the product not of some cultural predilection for family-based politics, but of the high returns to state office and the organizational weakness of political parties.

Political parties in India select candidates according to a highly centralized procedure, with no clear criteria for qualification. Most also do not have procedures for preventing defections at the local level. These two features—the lack of formal rules for candidate selection and the lack of procedures to prevent defections—push parties to rely on family ties as a second-based mechanism for maintaining loyalty in their local units.

The effect of dynastic politics on democracy is mixed. Dynastic politics is often described as an unfair and exclusive principle for the allocation of political office and it is indeed, we find, unfair and exclusive in some respects: dynastic MPs in India, when assessed according to some standard indicators, are not better qualified for politics than their non-dynastic counterparts, but parties give them a leg up anyway simply on the strength of their family ties.

Further, those who benefit most from this preference among parties for birth-based attributes are Hindu “forward caste” males. In this sense, dynastic politics in India is associated with a double form of exclusion; first by creating a birth-based ruling class, and second by amplifying the representation of dominant groups within this ruling class.

But paradoxically, dynastic politics has also had an inclusive effect. It has provided a channel for representation for members of social categories—women, backward castes, Muslims, and youth—which do not find, or have not found, a space in politics through normal channels.

Both exclusion and inclusion are a product, not of some property intrinsic to political dynasties, but of the institutional environment within which dynastic politics has arisen in India.

Dynastic representation in parliament, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg of dynastic politics in India.

The position of prime minister has been held by a single political dynasty—the Gandhi family—for most of India’s history as a democracy (39 out of the 67 years that India had been democratic at the time this book went to press in 2014). The cabinet, in which 24% of the ministers had dynastic backgrounds in 2014, is even more dynastic than the Lok Sabha.

The leaders of over a third of the parties (36%) in the parliament elected in 2014 had a dynastic background. So did the chief ministers of over a quarter (28%) of the governments of Indian states in the same year. In several of these states, the leaders of opposition parties were dynastic too.

Although we do not have data on dynasticism in lower-level legislatures—the state legislative assemblies, the village, block and district councils (panchayats), and the municipal corporations—news reports and initial research both suggest that family ties represent a systemic phenomenon there as well.

The causes and consequences of dynasticism in other representative institutions and in other levels of politics may not be the same as in the national parliament.

Excerpt compiled by the author Kanchan Chandra from her book Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics with permission from the publishers. We welcome your comments at