Dynasties and Democracy in Contemporary India: An Empirical Study (1952-2015)


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date5 Jun 2018


Over the past decade, it has become a well-established tradition of Indian politics: after virtually every election, when a large number of children, spouses and other relatives of established politicians make it to Parliament, the media scolds parties, voters and the political system at large. Observers and pundits regularly castigate these “political dynasties” as a fundamentally undemocratic element at the core of India’s democracy, warning that the latter could face dire consequences if the proliferation of these political heirs continued unchecked. However, these grim predictions are not based upon any solid facts, since no serious, systematic academic study has ever scrutinized the composition and the evolution of this phenomenon over the long term.

This thesis aims at filling this gap by providing a systematic empirical analysis of the evolution of the dynastic phenomenon in the Lok Sabha, from India’s Independence to present days, by identifying – and recording in a vast database – every single political heir ever elected to the lower House of Parliament in northern India. Using this dataset, this thesis attempts to assess the impact of political dynasties on India’s democratic system – and the interaction between the two – aiming to provide the nuance that such a complex and far-reaching topic requires.

The primary, fact-finding axis of this study rests upon a large dataset, in which every single member of the Lok Sabha elected from 1951 to 2015 (5307 terms in Parliament, in total), from northern India (21 states and two Union territories) has been recorded. 729 members of “democratic dynasties” have been identified amongst these MPs. Their political careers have been broken down and coded according to six dozen different variables, allowing for a detailed analysis of their careers and backgrounds.

The results of this study highlight the complex, mutually reinforcing relationship between dynasticism and democracy in India. The two phenomena arose and have evolved together. Early examples of democratic dynasties, notably the former princes, were co-opted and harnessed by the ruling Congress party to widen its reach, stabilizing the political system and strengthening the nascent democracy. Conversely, it was democratic imperatives (winning direct elections, considerations of representation and diversity, etc.) that often drove parties to resort to dynastic tactics.

The analysis of the evolution of the dynastic phenomenon in India’s Parliament over the last seven decades, also allows putting the results of post-Independence elections up to 2015 into perspective, which may help assuage the fears that dynasties threaten the democratic character of India’s political system. First, political dynasties have been part of the Lok Sabha since the very first legislature. Second, while dynasticism has increased over the long term, the general evolution of the phenomenon has proceeded by cycles, with sharp drops in the proportion of heirs always ending periods of expansion. Third, in this regard, the much scrutinized Fifteenth Lok Sabha (2009-2014) may well represent an isolated and somewhat exceptional high point, rather than the logical conclusion of a steady, predictable trend. Indeed, this 2009 record comes as a result of multiple separate – and often competing – trends coming together at that particular point in time, and as the result of tectonic shifts in Indian politics that had been two decades in the making. And fourth, despite this rising proportion of political heirs in Parliament, its staggering diversity – especially after 1989 –, both in terms of party affiliation and caste backgrounds, suggests that its expansion has been largely offset by its more diverse character. The rise of lower caste dynasties in recent decades is the most striking illustration of that fact.

This dissertation thus attempts to offer a more nuanced analysis of the complex, under-studied relationship between dynasticism and democracy in India, employing a large database that is expected to provide a solid base of facts for future research.

    Research areas

  • political dynasties, political families, political lineages, northern India, India, Hindi Belt, Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha, contemporary India, democratic dynasties, democracy, democracy in India, quantitative, data-driven, dataset, database, princes, maharajas, freedom fighters, Nehru-Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Congress party, Indian National Congress, BJP dynasties, lower caste, upper caste