Parties in India: Between family-run and cadre-based ones

By Soroor Ahmed,,

There are two types of parties in India. The first category is that which has dynastic control over the leadership and the second is cadre-based parties. Perhaps there is no scope for the third. However, it is also true that at places some cadre-based parties are getting afflicted by dynastic rule, and thus paying the price.

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Though Nehru-Gandhi family often becomes the favourite whipping boy of the opinion-makers and academics, the truth is that leaders of all the political parties, except the cadre-based ones, have promoted dynasty politics. Be it Karunanidhi or Sharad Pawar, Om Prakash Chautala or Shibu Soren, Prakash Singh Badal or Naveen Patnaik, Lalu Yadav or Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan or Chandrababu Naidu, Farooq Abdullah or P A Sangma––let their tribe increase––are all encouraging family politics or are themselves its product.

Some observers are quick to exclude the names of Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Jayalalithaa, Uma Bharati etc but the truth is that in their cases the scope does not arises for some very personal reasons. The fact is that they all encourage family politics in their respective parties. For example the Janata Dal (United) had given maximum number of tickets to close relatives of sitting MPs, senior party leaders etc in the recently held Assembly election in Bihar. Similar examples can be cited in Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh and All India Anna DMK in Tamil Nadu. Till now the possible exception is Trinamool Congress, but its leader Mamata Banerjee is still to be tested as she has not become the chief minister of West Bengal.

The cadre-based parties of India come from two totally opposite political poles: the Left and the Right. The Left in West Bengal, if defeated in May next election, would be voted out after 34 long years. Only Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (of one family) together ruled more than that at the national level––for 38 years.

The cadre-based Left is almost equally well entrenched in Tripura, but the case is slightly different in Kerala, where it is ruling the state with Congress almost alternatively.

The post-Babri Masjid demolition phenomenon suggests that it is difficult to dislodge another cadre-based party, the BJP, from power in several states. In Gujarat it is in power for about one and a half decade. The party is in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for too long, but was voted out in Rajasthan in 2008 because under the chief ministership of Vasundhara Raje it acquired dynastic quality. Her late mother was herself a senior BJP leader. In Uttar Pradesh the party declined fast in this period because the state leaders–– apart from other reasons––started promoting different families.

In Karnataka too, where the BJP came to power for the first time some 32 months back, the party, though cadre-based one, has acquired the traits of family dominated outfit. Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa is, of late, in trouble because of this very reason––the alleged involvement of his son in the land deal. Besides, the phenomenon of Reddys, where three brothers are calling shot, in the state politics is no less harmful for the party in power in the state. Two of these brothers are ministers and the third an MLA.

For all their demerits, one thing is clear: the Left parties remain completely cadre-based with hardly any example of family intervention. Prakash Karat’s wife, Brinda, became the Rajya Sabha MP, but it needs to be mentioned that she was associated with the CPI (M) on her own since her young age when she had hardly any contact with Prakash.

Since there is growing tendency of cadre-based parties learning the art of prolonging their stay in power the country is heading towards a different type of polarization––between family rule outfit and cadre-based machinery.

If the family-run parties have dynastic and dictatorial qualities the cadre-based often becomes fascist in their outlook and behaviour––thus there is more scope of political violence in the latter. For example in West Bengal there is presence of Left cadres even in temple and masjid committees, football and cricket clubs, Durga Puja samitis etc. Big brothers really keep a watch on everything under the sun.

Similar is the case with Gujarat, the laboratory of Hindutva, where the BJP cadres’ virtual omnipresence can be felt everywhere. Even judiciary and media are kept under the tight leash of the system.

In the state where cadre-based parties are powerful the opposition parties are often made irrelevant while in the family-ruled states the opposition remains somewhat strong. Not to speak of Gujarat even in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has lost its winning quality, even when the state had the leaders like Digvijay Singh, (now old) Arjun Singh, late Madhav Rao Scindia’s son and Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia––his father even defeated Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1984 election.

The Congress ruled for the first 30 years in the Centre not just because of the Nehru-Gandhi family but also because the opposition parties were yet to emerge as political alternative. Thus now the Nehru-Gandhi family does not have as strong the stranglehold over the party and government as, for example, Indira Gandhi had. The opposition can come back to power much more smoothly now than ever before.

But the incumbency factor had its role. In spite of complete control of the machinery by the party the Left is growing weak in West Bengal and after a long time it may be voted out. It would be out of power two decades after the Communism collapsed in Moscow, the fountain-head of the Marxian ideology.

But the collapse of another cadre-based party, the BJP, is not so imminent in several states, where it is in power. The party is in trouble only where the family factor starts playing its role.

Lastly, in India there is a bizarre cocktail of a cadre-based party with strict family control. That is called Shiv Sena––and now its off-shoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. They can never come to power in any state alone, as they have their own inherent weaknesses.