Political dynasties in the context of South Asia are the product of socioeconomic factors, class-based social structures, gender dynamics, and the lack of political consciousness of our masses. The institution, however, legitimizes status-quo in the society, keeps the class system intact and slows down the democratic process in the society
Just last year when Pakistan was inundated in the worst kind of floods, President Zardari was in England preparing to launch his
son Bilawal’s political career as the next generation leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The time and place was weird but what Zardari was doing in 2010, Z. A. Bhutto did in 1972 when he took his young daughter Benazir Bhutto with him to India after the 1971 war to negotiate release of Pakistani prisoners with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, another descendent of the Nehru dynasty in India.
Although Zardari was just continuing the well-established tradition,passing on the “Bhutto Dynasty” baton to the next generation, there is something in the South Asian soil that grooms and transforms political dynasties as a vibrant political force accepted by the masses. Amazingly, from the largest world democracy India to a much smaller nation of Sri Lanka, the tradition of powerful dynasties continues in South Asia, even in the 21st century.
The Nehru dynasty in India is one of the most enduring political families that ruled the country for 37 years in 3 generations. Jawaharlal Nehru ruled from 1947 to 1964, his daughter Indira Gandhi was prime minister during 1966-1977 and again 1980-1984, and her son Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister during 1984-1989. Rajiv’s son Rahul Gandhi will be in the fourth generation in a row to become the next prime minister of India as expected.
Unlike other parts of the world, women leaders are also holding their dynasties firmly in the region. In Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of President Mujibur Rehman and Khaleda Zia, widow of President Ziaur Rehman, have been involved in a furious match for political power. In Sri Lanka Prime Minister Solomon Bandranaike’s widow Sirimavo Bandranaike became prime minister in 1960 and later her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga also led the country as prime minister.
In these examples, however, daughters or widows benefited from their patriarchs to lead their nation. On the contrary, Zardari became President of Pakistan and co-chair of PPP after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007. His son Bilawal Bhutto will be the next PPP leader if he decides to be in politics.
Although other modern day democracies are not immune to political dynasties such as the Bush and Kennedy dynasties in the U.S. the question is why dynasties are still thriving as a dominant force in South Asia as compared to other world regions?
A quick analysis of why political dynasties have survived in South Asia reveals deeply rooted social dynamics that support the institution includingthe class-based social stratification,socioeconomic disparities, the everlasting feudal system and gender dynamics that play a vital role in strengthening the institution in the subcontinental context.
Although the British Raj was able to disrupt the social fabric in South Asia, we were not able to throw away remnants of monarchy which still fantasize our psychological state of mind. Our colonial rulers,who widely altered the social fabric of our society,kept the monarch-subject relationship alive connecting it with a more fantasized infrastructure of the British Royal system with an aim to reinforce the lower status of their Indian subjects. Probably that is why some of our older generations still fantasize the British Raj legitimizing imperial supremacy unconsciously.
It is this imperial past and a highly class-based social structure that explains why our masses are still used to obey political leaders from upper classes, rulers, officials and the feudal with no questions asked. Thus, thesupremacy of rulers is intertwined with the low economic status of the subject and a high status of the ruler. Probably that’s why democracy has not been strengthened in most South Asian countries even 65 years after the British Raj in the region, except in India.
While India efficiently came out the shadows of the British Raj by strengthening democratic norms and traditions and dissolving the feudal system, we did not get rid of the feudal system in Pakistan. Overall transition from the traditional social system to democracy in Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh has been a bumpy ride since independence.
As a patriarchal society, South Asia also represents interesting gender dynamics when it comes to dynasties and their political power in different countries. Interestingly, it is the same class-based system that also gives power to women to rule who belong to an upper class and who otherwise would have a second class status in a man-dominated society at large. In South Asia women leaders are willingly accepted as political leaders because of their class status and association to the family patriarch.
Although some women leaders have proved to be more successful than their male patriarchs, all the women who became political leaders and rulers in the region belonged to upper classes and they were associated with the family patriarch within their dynasty.
Not challenging their leadership skills and intelligence, Indira Gandhi was accepted as a daughter of Pandit Nehru in India, Benazir Bhutto became prime minster twice in Pakistan because of her father Z. A. Bhutto and Sirimavo Bandranaike continued the legacy of her father in Sri Lanka. So men or women, dynasties prevail in our part of the world because of their high socioeconomic status and political power.
Political dynasties in the context of South Asia are the product of socioeconomic factors, class-based social structures, gender dynamics, and the lack of political consciousness of our masses. The institution, however, legitimizes status-quo in the society, keeps the class system intact and slows down the democratic process in the society.
We like it or not, dynasties will continue to be a powerful political force in South Asia for some time.
In other words, the King is dead, long live the Dynasty!
(From Viewpoint Online)
- PPP+PML (Q) = A Coalition of Shame (thepakistanforum.net)
- ‘Bhutto’ Premieres on Independent Lens, 10 May. (Mixed Media) (popmatters.com)