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India's politicians keep it in the family

L-R Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been a force in Indian politics since independence

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

As India's new cabinet was sworn in, the biggest applause was reserved for one of its youngest members, Agatha Sangma, who is all of 28.

She was among several young faces who were brought into government by the Congress party to inject a sense of freshness and energy after its resounding poll victory.

But every single one of them belongs to political families.

Political nepotism appears to be a trend that isn't abating but seemingly spreading beyond the influential Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to a handful of clans across India.

So the formation of the new cabinet was held up because the chief of the southern Dravida Munnetra Khazagam (DMK) party wanted posts for his children and members of his extended family.

Even the smaller parties are often family fiefdoms with parents handing over the reins to their children.

'Subverting democracy'

Agatha Sangma
It's not a guarantee that just because you have a political background things will be easy for you
Agatha Sangma

Jiten Jain who runs Youth For Equality, a political advocacy group, says increasingly politics is being seen as a lucrative business.

"Sons, daughters, relatives are becoming MPs. This is disturbing. You are moving towards a monarchy where one constituency is ruled by one family and 500 families will rule India."

Youth for Equality put up a candidate in the election but she was routed by her better-funded opponent from a well-known political family.

"There are three to four political families that have five to six ministers in the cabinet. Except for one or two, none of them have worked in the social domain, none of them have any political experience. They have just come with the name of their fathers and grandfathers and got elected," he says.

It's not the voters who are at fault.

Vir Sanghvi, editor of the Hindustan Times newspaper says the parties are simply subverting democracy and freezing out the people.

"Often the voters are given two or three choices and all of those choices are dynasts. The internal democracy that we should be seeing in parties is almost entirely missing.

"So while there may be democracy when it comes to elections there is no democracy within parties. It's almost always the dynasts who get nominated," he says.

Because of a shortage of avenues you need your parental help otherwise you'll be at the bottom of the social rung
Sociologoist Dipankar Gupta

The young political beneficiaries of this trend argue that they have earned the right to be here.

Agatha Sangma, who is the daughter of a former Speaker of parliament, accepts that a political background, especially at a young age, is a huge advantage but it's not enough to succeed.

"It's not a guarantee that just because you have a political background things will be easy for you. It gives you an initial advantage but after that you have to be able to perform and only that will determine your political future," she says.

Family business

So at a time when India is emerging as a major international player, the world's largest democracy and an economic giant whose companies are at the forefront of global buy-outs - what can explain this apparently regressive step?

Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi - May 2009
Priyanka Gandhi (left) is often urged to join her brother Rahul in politics

"It's an extremely profitable business, people who become ministers tend to make a lot of money," says Vir Sangvi.

"There's also a sense, particularly in the smaller parties, that if you allow proper succession you lose control of the party. It's much more tempting to run it like a family business."

Then there's the tradition in India of children, usually male but increasingly female, going into the family profession.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says that unlike their Western counterparts, middle-class Indians feel that they cannot afford to leave the family profession, be it medicine, law, or increasingly, politics.

"The gap between the rich and the poor is so large that nobody wants to risk sliding to the bottom of the social scale. And because of a shortage of avenues you need your parental help otherwise you'll be at the bottom of the social rung."

So why do the parties select people from political families?

Mr Gupta says it has to do with a vast system of patronage between the politicians and the parties where they both end up favouring each other often at the cost of ordinary people.

But for many, this is extremely worrying for Indian democracy.

"If this continues, you will have the emergence of a political caste - a sort of Brahminical caste. Indian democracy will cease to be participatory, it will cease to be a way of empowering people. To get elected to parliament you will have to be born into political families," says Mr Sanghvi.

"The whole point of democracy in India is that poor people should be able to enter politics and change their lives.

"If there's just going to be a class of new Brahmins who get elected because the peasants vote them into power, the consequences for India will be devastating."



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