In the genes

What does winnability mean in a political culture that privileges family?

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit suggests that we ought not to make a fuss if parties pick the sons and daughters of politicians and legislators to contest elections. For the party, what matters most is the "winnability" of a candidate, she has said. If the son of a politician can fight the good fight and get votes, why grudge him his genes? There is practical sense in Dikshit's statement. It also hides more than it reveals.

It does not acknowledge the degree to which politics and parties remain exclusive clubs, inaccessible to people without the right family background. Dynasties have struck root and proliferated across the country, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh. Even the language of our politics is in thrall to pedigree, to the worship of "princelings" and "yuvrajs". But that is not so much a criticism of the children of politicians who enter the fray as it is a comment on the undemocratic ways in which parties are run.

The paradox has deepened over the years: even as India's democracy has struck firmer roots, the vehicles of democracy the political parties have remained insulated from that process. Parties are run by fiat and decree, rather than debate and dissent. Both power and the purse-strings are held by central leaderships, which impede a bottom-up growth and cut off the oxygen needed for second- and third-rung leaders to flower. The organisational structure of parties is such that an "outsider", even if she has the ambition and the acumen, will find few avenues to advance. Given such a fraught career path, it is no wonder that political parties fail to attract diverse talent. As a result, the people who have a shot at cracking this "winnability formula" are the heirs that parties foster. The family, for better or worse, remains the bedrock of Indian society, a mode of transmission of power, property and privilege. But in a democracy, lineage ought not to be the most important political capital.

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