Political dynasties

Published July 13, 2022
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

DYNASTIC politics curbs merit in politics. Yet it exists even in the West, China and Japan. Its strength varies. In its mild, most common form, many scions of a family win elections despite competitive politics, eg the Bushes in the US. Family ties give them an edge but they need merit too to win. Its hard form exists in Asia. Major parties are founded and run by a family for decades and only they seem to vie for the top electoral posts, irrespective of merit.

This is most common in South Asia and its four oldest electoral states — India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The last is arguably the most dynastic state as each of its two main parties have been run, since the country came into being, by one family, and have produced the most long-serving elected prime ministers since 1971. Pakistan comes close as the PPP and PML-N are still run by founding families from whom the most fairly elected prime ministers have come. However, they have had to appoint outsiders too as prime ministers. This may happen in the PTI also since Imran Khan’s closest kin are apolitical but dynasties abound below. In Sri Lanka, party control often slips across families, eg from the Bandaranaikes to the Rajapaksas. India has the oldest dynasty globally now in its fifth generation with a record three generations of prime ministers. But its main party, the BJP, is non-dynastic.

Politics emerges from and reflects societal realities. We have dynastic politics simply because we are a dynastic society, with dynasties rampant in business, media and other sectors. In developed states, policies get votes. But our electables win votes by promising patronage to local clans. These vote banks based on social links transmit within families, which produces dynastic politics. Patro­nage pyramids link local electables to nati­onal ones, often via family links. Cronyism supplements dynasties and is often seen as a replacement in less dynastic parties like the PTI and MQM. So the quality of people such parties nominate for party and state posts is no better, in fact often worse. Parties have their own vote banks too, although these too are not based on policies but cultist hero worship of top leaders. Parties win polls via a mix of top leaders’ political dynasties and cults.

These political facts come from economic ones. Developed states produce high-end goods and need educated labour. Merit prevails in economy and so in politics, and personal progress mostly depends on what one knows. But developing states produce low-end goods where producers need merit less than personal loyalty. Thus, patronage prevails in economics and hence politics and personal progress depends instead on who one knows. So despite being anti-merit, it thrives as it is tied tightly to key societal realities and it is naive to expect non-dynastic politics when society is dynastic.

Ending dynastic politics artificially won’t lead to merit in politics.

The main issue is not dynastic politics but a dynastic society. The former will reduce in the long term when dynasties in society reduce, as in India now. Some want it ended artificially via the law. A few Latin Ameri­can states have done so but progress there is worse than in many dynastic Asian states. Only those types of politics thrive in society which build on common societal norms. Ending dynastic politics artificially will not lead to merit in politics as merit is uncommon in society. In fact, worse forms of politics based on cruder social mores may emerge, eg extremist politics, as so in almost all major regional non-dynastic parties. Oddly, then, dynastic politics is the least bad politics type that can emerge naturally from our society now until long-term political or economic progress ends it.

There’s no proof it is the decisive issue holding back states. It has even delivered a bit in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. But it has not given us even such limited progress, because unlike the natural growth of parties in these states, our major parties have usually grown artificially due to Pindi support, which crushed organic ones. Thus, it is more urgent to end Pindi politics than dynastic politics.

But we need more merit in top state posts urgently, given our failing economy. An interim option till its eventual rightful fall is the Congress model where the family runs the party but appoints smart prime ministers like Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh who gave India its best economic eras. Our parties must do so too. The Bhuttos, Sharifs and Imran Khan lack the merit to be prime minister. Shahid Khaqan, Asad Umar, Hina Khar and Sherry Rehman are better options. The last two are my top choices as they are female, liberal, clean, experienced and competent though I will never vote for PPP due to the Zardari factor.

Thus advocating for an end to dynasties in top posts may be a feasible immediate option until there is a complete end to dynastic politics.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2022

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