Inheritors of the golden crown

Can leaders who shun democracy in their own parties run a country democratically?

Pranay Sharma Delhi

During Benazir Bhutto's second term as prime minister of Pakistan in the early 1990s, a popular joke used to do the rounds in political circles. It was about her infant son Bilawal being made the minister for children. The joke seemed appropriate to many. Benazir not only had the largest cabinet in Pakistan's history, she also got her unelected husband, Asif Zardari, appointed as minister for investment. In death, she proved her detractors right. She bequeathed the Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) to her husband and son.

It is an irony that even leaders like Benazir, who had the privilege of an Oxford-Harvard education and was exposed to the western way of life, returned to her feudal roots when it came to running Pakistan. To the West and many others, she was the liberal face of Pakistan. She wanted Pervez Musharraf's near-decade old regime to go. Benazir wanted democracy in Pakistan — but not in her own party.

Her will, opened a few days after her assassination, made it clear that like rest of her property, ownership of the PPP would also be with her family. She made Zardari and her son Bilawal, now 19-year-old, co-chairpersons of the party. There was no question of holding an election to choose the next leader. There was no question of asking more able leaders like Makhdoom Amin Fahim or Aitaz Ahsan to run it. The top slot has been reserved for the family/dynasty. The other leaders can either continue to play second-fiddle in the PPP, or look elsewhere to meet their political aspirations.

Benazir's legacy is not a case in isolation. South Asia is full of such families who run the political parties they head almost in a similar manner. We have the Nehru-Gandhis in India, the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka and the Sheikhs and Zias in Bangladesh. Nepal and Bhutan — the two monarchies, have just begun their tentative foray into democracy to find leaders outside their palaces.

A common thread runs through all these families. They have all lost at least one member of their family to political assassins. Undoubtedly, the death of a popular leader, especially one in harness, creates a sympathy wave among the people. This wave allows members of the family to step in and take charge. Some do it reluctantly, others more willingly.

Indira Gandhi's assassination created the situation for her son, Rajiv Gandhi, to become the prime minister. His death at the hands of a LTTE suicide bomber brought his widow Sonia Gandhi onto the political centrestage, and later, allowed her to become the Congress president. In neighbouring Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's death gave his daughter, Hasina, the chance to run the Awami League, while Zia-ur Rahman's assassination allowed his widow, Khaleda, to take charge of his Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, Felix Bandaranaike's assassination in 1959 catapulted his widow, Sirima, as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party; later, her daughter, Chandrika, led the party.

Leaders, who come to power riding on such a sympathy wave, often try to push their own personal, narrow agenda. In their desire to correct past 'mistakes', they adopt policies that help family members and encourage 'cronyism' — but rarely benefit larger sections of people.

This trend has exposed the weakness of major political parties to deal with the changed reality in their own countries. The entry of new actors in the political field and the challenges they pose have forced many leaders to fall back on 'brand names' rather than evolve effective policies to deal with the changed scenario.

But the fundamental question remains: Can leaders who shun democracy in their own political parties run a democratic country?

Changes that have begun to take place in different parts of South Asia may force many of these political parties to do some serious introspection. In the coming days we may see these 'civilian dynasties' coming to an end, making way for new political actors who will come up through a democratic process rather than be imposed from the top as 'dynasty's inheritors' of a democracy.