In traditional societies where the monarch is absolute, the ruler's death is marked by the cry: “The King is dead. Long live the King.” The message is that sovereignty has transferred instantly between generations and the stability of the governing power has not been interrupted. As a concept, it is as far as you can get from democracy, where the retirement or passing away of a leader opens up opportunities for fresh talent.
Writing in 1883 in Shetkaryacha Asud (The Farmers' Whipcord), the Maharashtrian reformer Jyotirao Phule described in vivid detail the life of a family of disadvantaged agricultural workers. Children ran around with “all manner of stains on their bodies” pretending to be drunk on arrack, and at the centre of the room lay an old woman on a sheet, groaning, wondering how her family would get through the latest drought. Ground down by debt like many land workers today, the farmer in Phule's book is worried about the sums he has to pay out in bribes and taxes. What bothers him most of all is the grip that the local moneylender's extended family has on his future: an uncle is a clerk in the revenue office, a cousin is the secretary to the collector, a brother-in-law is the munsif and the moneylender's father-in-law is the taluk's police officer. One single family has secured a lock on the system, excluding all others. A person born at a low level in society has no chance of success without connections.
I thought about Phule when I read of the recent death of Maharashtra's former chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh. Unlike many politicians these days, Deshmukh was a son of the soil, a village sarpanch who by sheer shrewdness and force of character rose to the top. Working on drought relief in Osmanabad's zilla panchayat in the 1970s, he progressed via student politics to ministerial portfolios before being tapped as chief minister by Madhavrao Scindia in 1999. Deshmukh ended his days as a Union cabinet minister, a respected Congress party stalwart who was given a state funeral in his village in Latur district, attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Deshmukh was born two years before Independence, and represented a generation that we can now see—with the benefit of hindsight—was one of the most politically mobile in India's long history.
Leave aside the controversies in his later career, Deshmukh was a politician of stature. Coming from the backward region of Marathwada, he was one of a wave of new grassroots leaders challenging the influential sugar barons of western Maharashtra. But within days of his death, sources were letting it be known that “as a mark of tribute” to Deshmukh's achievements, his 36-year-old son Amit was “likely to be inducted in the state cabinet during a reshuffle scheduled to take place after the monsoon session of Parliament.” Since his late father was close to party leaders, “Amit's induction into the Maharashtra cabinet won't be a problem.”
As an MLA from Latur, Deshmukh Junior is no greenhorn. When he first stood for election in 2002 he told a newspaper, “My job is to assist my father.” So he knew what his duty was: to extend the family's writ. But the absolute peculiarity of what is taking place in a functioning democracy should not be underestimated. Because it has become commonplace, it is easy to ignore the explosion of political nepotism. Even a generation ago, the immediate anointing of sons into public office was restricted to a handful of famous families. Today, it has become routine. The effect of this will take time to pass through the system. But if you are an ambitious young sarpanch today, you understand the message: your prospects of making it to the top are near zero.
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait (Penguin). Feedback: @PatrickFrench2