The tradition is widely considered undemocratic, particularly in Western countries, but many societies in South and Southeast Asia ask: ‘what’s wrong with progeny following in their parents’ footsteps?’
Nevertheless, India’s vocal urban middle class has decried the perpetuation of political dynasties in their country. Their principal target is the Nehru-Gandhi family, whose fifth-generation scion, Rahul Gandhi, was recently appointed vice president of the Indian National Congress. The party wants Rahul to lead it into the parliamentary election next year, despite his previous poor performance in attracting votes. Should the Congress win a third successive mandate, it wants Rahul to take over from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, now 80 years old.
While Rahul is preparing for next year’s parliamentary polls in India, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s test will come this summer in Pakistan. The chief of the Pakistan People’s Party will lead the election campaign, but will not contest a seat in parliament because of his age — he is not yet 25.
The successions of Rahul and Bilawal were expected. Choices are limited in traditional societies, where children taking up a senior family member’s profession is often seen as the done thing. In the case of political families, this move is usually governed by the exit, at times violent, of the senior. Their tasks are daunting. Besides continuing the family mission of ‘serving the people’, they also seek to preserve the family treasure of political power.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s political launch came on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of his charismatic mother, Benazir Bhutto. She herself had no choice but to assume the political spotlight after the hanging of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, eventually followed in the footsteps of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, to become prime minister of India after the sudden demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became prime minister within hours of Indira’s assassination in 1984.
The other branch of the Nehru-Gandhi family has done much the same. Maneka Gandhi joined politics after her husband, Sanjay Gandhi, died in an air crash in 1980. Their son, Varun Gandhi, is now an opposition law maker in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — the country’s founding leader. She had no choice but to take exile and seek justice after her father and three younger brothers were assassinated in a coup d’état in 1975. When another Bangladeshi president, Ziaur Rahman, was killed in 1981, his widow, Khaleda Zia, also had little choice but to step into the political arena. She served as prime minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006. Zia has now groomed her sons, Tarique and Arafat, to uphold the family’s political legacy.
Did Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike have a choice after her husband, former prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was shot dead? Or Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, after Benigno Aquino Jr was gunned down on his return from exile? Democracy’s return to Indonesia also aided the return of another Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who served as president of Indonesia between 2001 and 2004. Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has stepped in to help her embattled, exiled brother, Thaksin. And there is also the example of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, Aung San, helped to negotiate Myanmar’s independence.
There is an upside to this trend. These successions contribute to generational change in traditional societies, where the ruling class knows no retirement.
Back to Pakistan and to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari; his family is one of the many that dominate feudal/tribal societies across Asia. His father, Asif Ali Zardari, has been criticised for conducting political activity from the presidential palace, holding an office that is supposed to be above partisan politics. But Zardari wisely added Bhutto to Bilawal’s name and ensured the latter’s appointment as tumandar (chief) of the Zardari tribe of Balochistan. So, Bilawal is doubly blessed, but also doubly damned, with a Baloch father and a Sindhi mother in a nation where Punjab matters the most.
Nevertheless, Bilawal is expected to catch votes, using his Bhutto charisma to the hilt. Looks matter in politics, and Bilawal has the good Bhutto looks. He will have, among others, the globally famous Imran Khan to contend with in the upcoming general election. Imran is years ahead of Bilawal in a country where experience and age matter. Language, too, is important. Having spent his childhood in Dubai, and having studied at the University of Oxford, Bilawal is comfortable in both Arabic and English, but he will need to work on his Urdu, as did his mother.
Bilawal will also have to contend with other Bhuttos, including his aunt Ghinwa and cousin Fatima. Their careers are built on their hatred for Benazir, whom they accuse of helping to orchestrate the deaths of her two younger brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Bilawal must also be concerned about threats to his own life. How the Pakistani Taliban and the military establishment view him remains to be seen.
Engaging in politics in a democracy, whether or not one holds power, is like wearing a crown of thorns. Dynasty only makes it worse.
Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist.
A version of this article first appeared in the New Strait Times.