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Race for power and pelf


Legacy can go take a walk. It is inheritance of power that triggers succession wars, writes ADITI PRASAD
ADITI PRASAD | Issue Dated: December 2, 2012, New DElhi
Tags : Alagiri | Stalin | Pawar | Sule | Akhilesh | Sukhbir | Manpreet | Game of power | Political bigwigs |

King Asoka unhesitatingly slaughtered all his 99 brothers to secure his claim to the haloed throne of Patliputra. Centuries later, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb arrested his own father and brothers for the sake of Delhi’s crown. Lifetimes have passed between then and now but India is still enmeshed in that blood-soaked legacy of double-cross, backstabbing and sabotage on the matter of political successions within families.

Not that political dynasties are not there in the West. George W Bush and Jeb Bush – sons of the 41st President of the United States George Bush – were Governors of Texas and Florida respectively. But when the elder sibling George W Bush followed the footsteps of the father, ran for and became the 43rd president of the country, his brother did not throw a public tantrum. Instead, Jeb went out of his way to campaign for his elder brother in Florida and other states. There is no question of such amicable solutions to succession within Indian political families where blood brothers often become sworn enemies to protect and promote the legacy of their political turf.

Consider the two warring brothers down south – MK Alagiri and Stalin – who individually consider themselves the rightful heir to Kaunanidhi’s political legacy. Ever since the patriarch went through a major spinal cord surgery last year, became wheelchair bound and announced his impending retirement from active politics, both the sons have been stung by the succession bug.

The succession battle had in fact started much earlier in 2007 after a survey conducted by Dinakaran – owned by the Maran brothers who are grand nephews of Karunanidhi – estimated that Stalin was way ahead of Alagiri as the heir to the family’s political jewels. Tensions mounted in 2009 when Stalin was promoted as deputy chief minister by his father days after his elder sibling was sworn in as union minister in Delhi. The DMK’s rout in the last Assembly elections added fuel to fire with Stalin's supporters pitching for a greater role for their leader in the party. Alagiri’s supporters breathed fire over any such insinuation.

“But Karunanidhi’s mindset is firm with Stalin as his political heir against Alagiri,” affirm political analysts. With Karunanidhi busy planning to get his 2G scam tainted daughter Kanimozhi out of jail – and Alagiri away in Delhi – Stalin is reportedly asserting his position inside the party and strengthening his clout these days. But a big fear is that if Stalin is indeed given the party chief’s post, Alagiri will try his level best to wrest away control from his brother. Party old timers believe that arch rival and chief minister J Jayalalithaa may use the chance to dismantle the DMK.

Succession slugfests are not the purview of just sons or daughters. Sons-in-law, brothers, nephews, nieces are all happy to take a bite out of the dynastic cake. Remember how the son-in-law of India’s first family casually announced his political ambitions a few months ago? Sitting astride a motorbike while campaigning for the party in the Gandhi bastion of Rae Bareilly earlier this year, Robert Vadra said “I can join politics if people want.” Given the recent furore over his involvement in dubious multi-million  rupees land dealings, Vadra’s public service intentions are hopefully not likely to be put to test in the near future.

But that is certainly not the case with anguished nephew Ajit Pawar, who once counted uncle Sharad Pawar’s political legacy as his own; and is now aghast at the manner that the family jewels are being transferred to Shard Pawar’s own daughter Supriya Sule. Tension is simmering between the two cousins. In an indication that the NCP patriarch has chosen his political heir, Sule has been on whirlwind tours of all districts in Maharashtra over the past few months mingling with female party workers.

Says Kumar Saptarshi, president of Maharashtra Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and Sharad Pawar’s contemporary since their college days, “He (Pawar) will do everything to ensure that his daughter becomes the CM of Maharashtra. But the stumbling block is his nephew Ajit who has chief ministerial ambitions.” Saptarishi adds that an exasperated Ajit Pawar has often been heard telling his supporters that “my uncle became chief minister at the age of 38. I have crossed 50 and have not achieved that goal.”

Pawar has now nominated Sule as president of the prestigious institute Yeshwantrao Chavan Pratisthan, where the senior Pawar himself was at the helm of affairs till recently. The move has reportedly ticked off Ajit. Sadly for the nephew, his political career is itself at crossroads after his resignation from the post of Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister over his alleged involvement in a Rs 20,000 crore scam when he held the irrigation portfolio in the state.

The obsession with being anointed political heir is invariably because politics in India is associated with wealth and power to be handed down through generations. When Devi Lal became deputy prime minister in 1989, he quickly installed his son Om Prakash Chautala on the Haryana CM's chair as replacement. When Chief Minister Lalu Yadav got charge sheeted in the fodder scam, he promptly elevated uneducated wife Rabri Devi to the CMs post, lest his power and pelf goes absconding.

Indian political dynasties, in fact, often rival business families in bitter succession conflicts, primarily because there is no bigger business in India than the business of politics. A string of political scams in the recent past bear testimony to this business of politics where shady dealings, shell companies, multi million rupees contracts and favourable policy formulations for egging on personal business interests rule the roost. “The only difference between business and political succession plans is that the latter cannot be divided equally among stakeholders,” points out political commentator Yashwant Deshmukh. For the political legacy to be effective, the heir must inherit the power in its entirity.

Worse, in case a reigning politician passes away without anointing a political heir, a free for all succession battle ensues even before the pyre is lit or the coffin lowered. Remember 1987 and the death of AIADMK founder MGR? The film star turned politician’s wife Janaki and his party’s propaganda secretary J Jayalalithaa slugged it out to become the party leader after him. The battle split the party wide open and the two factions led by the ladies respectively fought the next assembly elections separately.


A similar free-for-all is now all too apparent in the Samajwadi Party. Patriarch Mulayam Singh must have felt some tensions ease when he handed over the baton to his heir apparent and son Akhilesh Yadav earlier this year. To be fair, the junior Yadav did seem like the next rising star in the national political firmament as he led his party to a smashing victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. But eight months in office as chief minister and the chinks in the Yadav family’s armour of political ambitions have already begun to show.

“Mulayam had hoped that the transition from him to his son would be smooth, but the ambitions of others in the family have been thwarted. That has made this a hydra headed, ineffective government,” offers BJP MP Lalji Tandon. Akhilesh is indeed caught between his feuding uncles Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Yadav. Shivpal Yadav had himself nursed ambitions of taking on the CM’s mantle in UP after Mulayam but apparently, Ram Gopal lobbied for Akhilesh and the rest is history. Thanks to Akhilesh’s patronage, Ram Gopal now exercises greater power within the party than before. The situation is adding to Shivpal’s bag of woes.

A third dimension to this simmering cauldron is Mulayam's second wife Sadhana Gupta, who is pushing for a slice of the political cake for her son Prateek. “Politics ensures prominence and money. When other family members see this, they aspire for the same. Rivalries in SP are festering just below the surface,” says Surendra Kumar Dwivedi, Professor of Political Science at Lucknow University.

An easy way for political bigwigs to share the meaty pie between more-than-one successors is to divide their responsibilities between the Centre and state. That is the route Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Ravi Shankar Shukla took with his sons SC Shukla and VC Shukla; that is what Karunanidhi is trying to do with Stalin and Alagiri and that is what Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal attempted (unsuccessfully) with son Sukhbir and nephew Manpreet Badal.

Nephew Manpreet was brought into politics by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) patriarch and Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal in 1995. When Badal’s own son Sukhbir began nurturing political ambitions, he was earmarked to play a role in national politics while Manpreet rose to fame at the regional level. But the status quo did not continue for long. “After SAD came into power in the state in 2007, Sukhbir realised that the real gains were enjoyed at the state level. He began playing a big role in party affairs. This irked Manpreet,” says Chandigarh based journalist Daljit Singh.

Cousins Manpreet and Sukhbir spent years squabbling over who would inherit the SAD legacy. But when Badal senior anointed his son as deputy chief minister in 2009, Manpreet realised that the political heir had been chosen. He began to publicly criticise the policies of the SAD-BJP government, was eventually ousted from the party and formed his own People’s Party of Punjab (PPP).

For all the obsession with dynastic politics in the Nehru-Gandhi family at the centre, there have hardly been any raging succession battles in India’s first family, that is if you discount Maneka Gandhi famously storming out of Indira Gandhi’s residence in 1981 on ostensibly being denied the legacy of the late Sanjay Gandhi. Instead, bloodshed and backstabs seem to be an oft-repeated saga amidst India’s regional satraps.

As Raj and Uddhav battle it out for Bal Thackeray’s political legacy in Maharashtra now, get set for some real fireworks in the days and months to come. Let’s hope that the city of dreams emerges unscathed from the flying embers of this latest bitter succession feud. 

With inputs from Appana Samy, Chandran Iyer and Puja Awasthi

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017