Dynastic Succession: What is the difference between India and France?

In our last post (More on Dynasties and Modernity) we had made the point that “it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name.”

As if on cue, an op-ed appeared in The News (January 25, 2008) entitled PPP’s succession — not so flawed. The author, a barrister and human rights activist currently based in the UAE, had the following things to say:

You will not meet a PPP supporter who will not tell you exactly this–that they want a Bhutto to lead the party. From the workers to the leaders, be they of any ethnic or religious background, all want a Bhutto as their leader.

Contrary to what the critics imply, the Bhutto family has not imposed its leadership upon the PPP, or in some clever way contrived to retain party leadership to hog power. Rather, it is a position that has been entrusted upon them by the people. Through years of struggle and sacrifice the Bhutto family has made a place in the hearts of the poor and downtrodden like no other party in Pakistan. The people believe in their sincerity to their cause and have faith in their leadership. They know that this family will do all it can to ease their problems.

The day before Benazir Bhutto was to arrive in Pakistan, Amar Sindhu, a writer who teaches philosophy to university students in Jamshoro, had gone to do some television interviews. She asked some nomadic women why they insisted on voting for Benazir. “She has been twice prime minister. You are still where you are, in your jhuggis [huts]. What has she ever given you?” They answered, “Allah will give us what we need. We just want to see Benazir happy. She is very dukhhi [sad]. Our votes will make her happy.” 

This fantasy-like, mythical relationship between the Bhuttos and the people baffle the intellectual mind. It defies its logic, spurns its theories and scoffs at its cynicism. It is not something to be understood…it is something that can only be felt. Anyone who has seen a Bhutto amongst the people would know what I’m talking about.

This is very much in tune with our own experiences. In the late 1980s, I once asked a rural voter why he continued to support the Peoples Party when it had completely changed its position on many issues. Because “Bhutto is our king,” he answered. Back in the city, I asked a young physician the same question. Because “Bhutto helped my father when he was in trouble,” was the answer.

As we have been stressing in these series of posts, we are not taking a position for or against dynastic succession. That would be to lose sense of the context. What we are trying to highlight is the fact that in South Asia dynastic succession has the kind of legitimacy that it does not have, for instance, in France. That is not to say that dynastic succession never had legitimacy in France. But something has changed there—what was quite normal at one time comes across as totally bizarre to a French citizen today.

Whatever has changed in France hasn’t yet changed in South Asia. The ethos of South Asia is still monarchical. It is just that we live in the 21st century where we have to use electoral mechanisms to legitimize our dynastic rulers. And that creates a lot of confusion.

This is where we find fascinating the clues in Ramachandra Guha’s book that tell us how a new practice finds root in alien soil. One such clue is his reference to ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.” (Page 418)

And “The Indian’s love of voting is well illustrated by a cluster of villages on the Andhra-Maharashtra border. Issued voting cards by the administrations of both states, the villagers seized the opportunity to vote twice.” (Page 736)

Of course, things are changing; Of course, Indians are spread across a spectrum with different perspectives on dynastic succession; Of course, the electoral space has generated major gains for many; Of course, people have exploited the space rationally for good and bad ends. We are not arguing against democracy or the electoral process here. We are making the point that South Asia still has a large residual monarchical ethos. And we are intrigued by the size of the residual and by how it is changing.

And, in the realm of the mind, the bottom line is that there is a difference between France and India in the perception of dynastic succession. That we know. But what exactly is the difference, how has it come about, and what is happening to it over time? That escapes us still. All we can say is that the old modernization theory with its thesis of convergence leaves us unconvinced.

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  • kamal khan
    Posted at 04:56h, 26 January Reply

    Benazir Bhutto’s 19 year old son, Bilawal is the new head of the Pakistan People’s Party. Uhh, in a democracy, you’d actually have a caucus of party leaders or something, even in an emergency like this and you certainly wouldn’t give the reins to a 19 year old kid. Do u think he is mature enough to lead the largest political party of Pakitsan??? It seems that the entire PPP does not have a single person capable of leading the party…….is this a family heirloom? Someone correctly stated, “MOVE OVER BILAWAL, ITS CERTAINLY ASIF’S TIME TO SHINE”.

  • Deportation
    Posted at 08:12h, 29 April Reply

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this post and also the rest of the site is extremely good.

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