Nothing succeeds like succession. Many successful leaders can attest to that. Delays in making ruthless decisions can bring down empires and destroy dynasties. The Gupta Empire fell to familial machinations. Throne-hungry kin pitilessly murdered many Mogul rulers. Present palace coups are physically painless, but emotionally traumatic events as revealed by the devious struggles for supremacy by the progeny of top regional satraps.
Political espionage, covert use of money and mind power, deployment of spin-doctors and a hug-and-stab policy are today’s most effective tools to topple governments and weaken rivals within the family. As the face of India transforms from a poor and backward nation till the 1980s to the world’s fastest growing economy, the colour and contours of the political narrative is undergoing changes. The new generation of leaders may have adopted the political language of their power-parents, but their social and economic upbringing is engendering conflict over the future shape of the regional and smaller parties.
The ongoing war between the Samajwadi Party’s heir apparent and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav, who was also a minister in his Cabinet, symbolises the dynastic feuds taking place in many political families. On the face of it, the UP faceoff appears to be just an ego clash between the young and the old, between new and old-age politics. In reality, it is a decisive fight for a legacy. Ageing and ailing leaders, who fathered small parties by mobilising caste and community power, are struggling to lay the road map for the future generation.
Besides the Gandhi dynasty, India’s political landscape is dotted with over a dozen families like of M Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, H D Deve Gowda, K Chandrashekar Rao, Chautalas, Badals, Sharad Pawar, the Abdullahs, Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Their successors have been installed without facing rebellion from the old guard and relatives. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Omar in Kashmir, Tejaswi in Bihar, Lokesh in Andhra Pradesh, Rama Rao in Telangana, Sukhbir in Punjab and Supriya Sule in Maharashtra have stepped into the shoes of their fathers and taken charge of their parties. Where there have been hiccups, like in Tamil Nadu and Punjab, the patriarchs were decisive on which son to choose. Kanimozhi and the rebellious Alagiri were suppressed by their father. Supriya neutralised her powerful uncle Ajit Pawar with daddy’s help. It is only in UP and Haryana where the succession line is yet to be decided, where the inheritors are yet to create their own
teams and are involved in a battle of wits with elders who are clinging to their posts.
The selection of a successor is linked with not only the political tapestry of the state but is also based on the clout relatives and other members of the party enjoy in a family-run outfit. Most regional parties with more than one claimant to the chair have demarcated the political responsibilities of each. Karunanidhi made it clear that only Stalin is his successor and sent daughter Kanimozhi and elder son Alagiri to the Centre. In Telangana, KCR chose his elder son Ram Rao as heir, while drafting daughter Kavitha to play a key role in New Delhi. Parkash Singh Badal deputed his daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur to Parliament and declared that his only son Sukhbir will take over from him. Farooq Abdullah has been the most pragmatic leader, who handed over the reins to his son and chose to play a minimum role in national politics. No wonder, he didn’t make a single statement on the current crisis in the Valley as he has left it to Omar to lead the National Conference. But other leaders like Lalu haven’t given up the reins yet, though he has declared Tejaswani his successor by making him the deputy CM. Lalu continues to dabble in both national and local politics.
As Rahul Gandhi raises poll dust to oust Akhilesh, sister Priyanka has quietly stepped in as his political manager, in tandem with her mother’s much disputed choice. Yet the succession has been decided.
That is not the situation in the Yadav Parivar. Though Mulayam chose Akhilesh as his heir, he failed to define the hierarchy. This has led to the feud between his brother and son. Although the party is fully controlled by the Yadav clan, all of them, including Mulayam, have no defined KRAs. Ramgopal Yadav, a Rajya Sabha member and Mulayam’s cousin, is the only relative with the specific mandate to handle Central politics and assist Mulayam on the national stage. But Akhilesh has not been unambiguously declared the party number two, thus leaving the door open for Shivpal to assert his seniority and age. He hasn’t reconciled to Akhilesh pipping him to the chief minister’s post in 2012 and replacing him as party chief. Since then, Akhilesh has been the face of both the party and the government. Because of better academic exposure and being social-savvy, he faces a crisis of articulation while dealing with the old guard, including even his father. While the party seniors played with caste coalitions, Akhilesh’s freebies were empowerment-oriented, such as schemes for women to laptops for students.
Like many inheritors, Akhilesh is confronted with the challenge of not only retaining the old but also expanding the party’s inherited vote base. They have no A-teams because they have been saddled by O-teams—their fathers’ old teams. He is not placed comfortably. As state party chief, he played an insignificant role in political matters. He knew of his removal from the post only through the media. At 43, Akhilesh has a much larger stake in the party’s survival than his elders. He can’t win elections forever by protecting the interests of just Yadavs and Muslims, a policy his senior relatives would like him to continue.
The SP may still possess some ideological gloss from the past. But Mulayam knows Brand Akhilesh is more saleable than just the party. But he doesn’t want it to be corroded by internal sabotage. The current uneasy truce is Mulayam’s strategy to make Akhilesh the Champion of 2017. The year will also mark the sunset of the old and the rise of many sons if the latter play their cards well. Fortunately both age and upbringing are on their side, and not with the patriarchs within.