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The Succession Game

Zoya Hasan

By Inder Malhotra
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 363, Rs. 495.00


Although the Nehru-Gandhi family alone has dominated accounts on political dynasties so far, it is not the only powerful family/dynasty within India, leave alone South Asia. Indeed, the number of influential families striding the political stage in the region is rather large. In addition, dynasties abound in the world of industry, film, music and many other fields. Even as the Nehru-Gandhi family has attracted much attention in writings in India and abroad, none of the writers has tried to explain why the dynastic dispensation has taken such strong roots in this part of the world or why people vote for dynastic leaders time and again. Malhotra’s book fills this gap and does so without prejudice. He puts the rise of political dynasties in the countries of South Asia in a historical perspective, and he analyses why, in the Asian milieu, democratically elected dynasties are likely to last much longer than they did in the West. Though the Nehru-Gandhi family is unsurprisingly the centerpiece of the book, Malhotra puts the rise of each member of the family in context, therefore the account of this dynasty also becomes an account of politics in India over the past few decades.   Malhotra points at an interesting feature of the dynasties in the subcontinent — the dominance of women. As a general phenomenon, political dynasties are not unusual. What is less common is that women have dominated the dynastic phenomenon and have been the beneficiaries of their family’s political inheritance. It is indeed striking how many governments or opposition movements in South Asia have been, or are led by women given the fact that these countries are widely considered patriarchal and paternalistic in character. Why is it that women predominate in this dynastic succession? There is no doubt that the dominance of female leaders is linked to familial politics and to their being members of prominent families: they are all the daughters, wives, or widows or former government heads or leading oppositionists. But, paradoxically, this phenomenon exists independently of levels of economic and social development, cultural differences, and types of political systems. Many of these women leaders were selected as successors within the family because they were often perceived as apolitical and therefore an ability to symbolize non-partisan alternatives to corrupt (male) leadership. They appeared less threatening to potential rivals, who thus could support their leadership without sacrificing their own ambitions. Although they ...

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