No, not the 1980s TV show. That’s just to increase my google hit. This post is really about dynastic politics that pervades Bangladesh. In fact, not just Bangladesh but many other similar (and not-too-similar) countries. Ask any Bangladeshi pundit (or not-so-pundit-but-bhadralok-type) and you’ll hear the evils of dynastic politics. Many a people in (not to mention supporting) the 1/11 regime were sincere in their desire to improve matters by eliminating the key dynasties from politics.
And yet, political dynasties, both at national and local level, prevails. Voters regularly (though not always) vote dynastic scions.
Over the fold, I provide a rudimentary theory of dynastic politics. I think this quick-and-dirty theorising has considerable explanatory power. Further, the theory can actually make some normative claims about under what circumstances, dynastic politics can actually improve things. And the theory has important implications for non-dynastic politics.
Needless to say, a blog isn’t the place to fully write down a well structured model. Give me a research and consulting grant, and I’ll do that for you. 🙂
Let’s start at the micro level. Most voters are not politically active, or even aware. The average voter may have broad general political views. In times of crisis, these views may be expressed more strongly, or the voter may become more interested in politics and change views. But generally, they are happy to ‘go with the flow’ or ‘trust the gut instinct’.
In such situations, name / brand recognition is a very useful strategy for the political parties. If the party nominates the spouse / offspring / sibling of a famous and popular politician, low information voters might say ‘ah, this is legacy of the great leader, cool, will vote’. At a sufficiently local level, if the scion of a well known family is nominated, voters might say ‘ah, everyone from that family has done well by us, cool, will vote’.
What other candidates can have that kind of name recognition?
Celebrities can. ‘AB is a famous movie star, cool, vote’.
The rich. Successful businessmen can come to the party and buy nomination. And they can then flood the electorate with money, demonstrating their ability to get things done.
There is, however, another type of candidate — the seasoned, grass root politicians. These are the people who join the party as students or in their youth, at the community or neighbourhood level. They participate in various campaigns and activities, and earn the community’s recognition and trust.
In mature democracies, we can see people like this more commonly. They are more common with well developed party structures, or where community or ‘civil society’ organisations are robust. In developing countries, cadre based parties (of left and right) can produce candidates like this. And in both mature as well as emerging democracies, identity politics is conducive to this kind of candidate.
So, to summarise then, parties care about winning over the low information voter. Their nomination choices are: the scion, the celebrity, the businessman, and the activist. Who will they choose can be explored empirically. Specifically, an appropriately designed regression analysis can determine what factors would increase the probability of the scion being chosen.
But I think we can go further with a properly written down model. We can explore the circumstances under which the scion is actually preferred over other candidates.
I guess it would be relatively straightforward to show that under most circumstances, the activist is qualitatively better for the polity and the society. But are there any circumstances when the activist is the ‘wrong’ choice?
Activists of ideologically rigid parties could lead to a Manichean struggle. Depending on exact parameters of the model, we can conceive of circumstances when the activist might not be preferred. Let me translate than into English. Instead of the Sheikh League vs Zia Dal, will Bangladesh be really better served by a Naxalite vs Taliban politics?
Admittedly, this is a rather extreme situation. In most ‘normal’ situation, activists should be preferred. The question then is, if for some reason the ‘supply’ of activists dwindle, then whom should be preferred — the scion, the celebrity, or the businessman?
Specifically, in a country like Bangladesh, who is better — dynasty scions, or the rich businessmen who enter politics to make more money? Where electoral politics has deeper roots — say, Indian — perhaps the voters prefer dynasty scions because through trial and error they have learnt that businessmen will only serve their interest, whereas the scions will need to do something for the community if only to maintain their family name.
We can apply the same analysis at the national level. There is also an additional factor in the national level. Where political parties are not strongly differentiated along ideological lines, or where it is difficult to demonstrate competence in office, or where identity politics has limited appeal, the cult of personality is the most effective way to keep a party united.
Arguably, the above para describes Bangladesh pretty well. Now consider this — will such a country be better served by a new cult of personality? Put more bluntly, if the choice is between one of the princes and a new general, which one is better for Bangladesh in the long run?
Finally, let’s consider the ‘policy prescription’ of this rudimentary theory.
At the micro level, the theory would suggest increasing the ‘supply’ of activist politicians.
Again, consider Bangladesh, where the problem is particularly acute because we have systematically destroyed various avenues through which grass root politicians can arise. There is no student politics, or labour movement, or environmental or community movement. Local government mayors and chairmans have no authority. This seems to be a far bigger problem than worrying about the dynasties as such.
At the macro level, it’s a bit more complicated. I think there is a great amount of ‘path dependency’ whereby a scion gets a major head start. Given the existence of dynasty prior to their arrival, people like Rahul Gandhi or Tarique Rahman are default party leaders. They have to screw up badly for someone else to get a chance. Perhaps more ‘activist’ leaders at the micro level would increase the chance of such leaders breaking through to the national scene.