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GenNext all around

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Bilawal is a mid-morning raga in Hindustani classical music, to be sung or played between 9 am and noon. It has now been made world famous because the eldest son of the late Benazir Bhutto, now her successor as the head of the Pakistan Peoples' Party, is also called Bilawal. He is all of 19 years old. Such young persons are not usually handed over the baton. Even Pitt the Younger was 23 years old when he become prime minister of England and went on to rule it for about 20 years. But it does happen in royalist arrangements and, it would seem, most South Asian political parties tend to be that way: the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, the two begums in Bangladesh, and, of course, the Gandhi dynasty in India. All that is missing is a formal monarchy. In fact, in India dynastic succession happens at the state level also, witness the handing over of party leadership by Bal Thackeray to his son Uddhav, who in turn is now blooding his own son. There is also the impending handing over by various other state leaders to their respective sons "" in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, UP, Jammu & Kashmir, etc. In Andhra Pradesh the top TDP job was grabbed by the son-in-law, in Bihar by the wife because the husband had to step aside, and in Tamil Nadu by a personal associate of the late leader. In Orissa, even more remarkably, the son succeeded after a considerable time gap.
Sociologists and political scientists will doubtless do their research and come up with explanations for this extraordinary trend "" though South Asia is not unique. There are the Perons in Argentina, and in the United States the Bush patriarchy and the Clintons. It could be that name recognition is an important starting point in a media-hungry age, or that trust in one leader is easily transferred to his or her progeny more than to a possibly faceless alternative. Indeed, it is extraordinary that Ms Bhutto should decree in her "will" that her son would succeed her as party president, as though the party is personal property "" which, perhaps, it may well be. There could be an economic explanation as well: only someone from the family can be trusted to manage the wealth and the income that come with a successful political career. The practice of democratic politics requires a lot of money. In societies that are relatively new to it, and where institutional funding of the sort seen in some mature democracies is yet to take root, the success of a political party depends as much on charisma and ideology as the ability to sustain a virtual army of supporters. This is where the quest for personal wealth by leaders becomes important and eventually ends up in dynastic politics. It is no coincidence that parties like the CPI(M) and the BJP, which have large ideology-based cadres, don't practise dynastic politics.
There will be those who argue that dynastic politics is not in itself such a bad thing. Those who oppose it say that it prevents a real test of ability, and that problems with genetic succession will crop up sooner or later. Those who find it acceptable say that just because a person's parent is a major political leader, it should not be held against him or her. Whatever the case, and whether one likes it or not, in South Asia this is the age of political dynasties.

First Published: Tue, January 01 2008. 00:00 IST