When the conversation is about political dynasties, it is a whole big prospect that opens out before you. You might begin to wonder at the beauty or the immensity of it all, which is why you cannot deny the place dynasties have taken in our lives and not just in this country. Consider what had been happening in Burma, or Myanmar as its military rulers would like to have it known. The daughter of Aung San spent an unremittingly endless period of time struggling for democracy. She has not quite succeeded in her battle, despite the change in her political fortunes, but neither has she failed. Aung San Suu Kyi keeps the lamps burning because it was her father who lighted them once.
But not all dynasties are symbolic of brilliance. When the kleptocratic Mobutu regime fell in Congo, it was Laurent Kabila (about whom Che Guevara had little of the positive to note) who took charge. His death at the hands of his bodyguards caused his young son Joseph to step into his shoes. It does not appear that anything much has changed in the country, despite a globally supervised election that the young man won recently. So much for light.
When you consider the tales of the many dynasties in our times, you cannot but note the debilitating consequences that have flowed from some of them. In Sri Lanka, democratic politics has in a way remained stunted because of the long preponderance of the Bandaranaikes and Senanayakes in the country. And do not forget that all the troubles caused through the growth of Tamil militancy had their beginnings in the times of SDRD Bandaranayake. His wife and his daughter only made things worse. Today, the brothers Rajapakse have the country in their grip.
Political dynasties can over a period of time run out of breath or out of ideas. When you watch young Rahul Gandhi declaim that his family had been responsible for the success of India’s freedom movement as also for the military defeat of Pakistan and the rise of Bangladesh, you realize the huge gap that has come between Jawaharlal Nehru’s intellect and his heirs’ pretensions. And that is one very real problem with dynasties. They suffer from pretensions of various kinds. Pakistan’s Ejazul Haque had no business being in politics, but since his father Ziaul Haque was around once, he and his acolytes thought that he ought to be on the national stage too. He became a minister, and then made a silly spectacle of himself when he went overboard in suggesting that all Pakistanis ought to have their religious denominations mentioned on their passports.
How much more parochial can men in responsible places get to be? And, apart from the parochial, there is always something pointless about dynasties. Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron had the spirited and nearly saintly Evita Peron beside him in the 1950s. By the time Peron returned to office in the 1970s, it was Isabel Peron who shared his life and his politics. On his death, she was elevated to the presidency about whose workings she had precious little idea. It did not come as any surprise, therefore, when she was overthrown by the military in 1976.
There are dynasties you can admire for the contributions they have made to life and society. Note that in these dynasties the different generations have risen to the top through their individual efforts and all of them have done brilliantly well for themselves. Tony Benn is a household name in Britain. His son Hilary Benn proved to be a capable minister in the Blair cabinet. You could say much the same about the Papandreous in Greece. There was George and there was Andreas. They helped solidify Greek democracy and make it come level with the rest of the pluralistic world. But that is not what you would want to suggest about the Kennedys. When John F. Kennedy appointed brother Robert as attorney general, a pungent odour of nepotism spread all over the place. And that was not all.
The young nephew of House Speaker John McCormack, struggling to prevail over the just-turned-thirty Edward Moore Kennedy at the election for JFK’s old Senate seat in 1962, taunted the latter thus in public: ‘If your name had just been Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke’. And that was that. In modern times, American dynasties have been notable instances of intellectual decline from one generation to another. Senator Prescott Bush was quite a brilliant man, which is not quite what you can say about President George Herbert Walker Bush. But even worse was to come in the shape of George W. Bush. One does not need to expand on that, does one?
There are dynasties which launch themselves in glory and then fall to earth in the silent thud of mediocrity. Think back on the inspirational leadership once provided to Indonesia by Ahmed Sukarno. Three decades after his death, his daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri fumbled for ideas. She departed from the presidency unmourned. And then there are the stories of men who go desperately into the job of trying to ensure dynastic rule for their families. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had been grooming his son Gamal to succeed him in the top job when he fell. Nearby in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi too was busy projecting son Saif as the wave of the future. Egypt and Libya are changed, damaged places today.
Dynasties are wonderful exhibits of arrogance in our times. They awe, they charm and they intimidate. But then a time comes when they cannot keep pace with expectations. And because they cannot, they tend to lean towards atrophy. Some might even give off some scent of the putrid.