In Defence of Nepotism? Lessons from the Learned

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Are elections a legitimate means of building family fiefdoms in India? Here are some lessons in the fine art of nepotism.

God’s own country was in the news again. The Kerala minister for Industries and Sports, E.P. Jayarajan, resigned on Friday, October 14, facing charges of corruption and nepotism.

The story goes like this. He appointed Sudhir Nambiar, his wife’s sister’s son, as the Managing Director of Kerala State Industrial Enterprise Ltd. This was met with controversy, and Kerala’s Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau ordered a probe into the matter on Thursday. He resigned the next day.

Poor chap! He has much to learn in the fine art of nepotism. Perhaps some history lessons could help?

For a start, he could learn from the learned Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru appointed his sister Vijaya Laxmi Pandit, as India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, United States, Mexico, Ireland, United Kingdom and Spain. The Prime Minister’s sister also headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations and served as the Governor of Maharashtra.

In 1964, when her brother died, she proactively contested from Phulpur, his former constituency and got elected to the Indian parliament. As illustrious as her career may be, after her brother’s death, Vijayalakshmi Pandit saw competition lurking around the corner.

Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi became India’s first and only woman Prime Minister. With this mantle on her head, she ruled India for nearly two decades.

Her son, Sanjay Gandhi, was expected to succeed her. Thanks to his mother’s Prime Ministerial position, he constantly interfered in political and administrative matters without being elected to the Parliament. History is rife with such stories. Inder Kumar Gujaral, the then minister of Information, refused to take orders from Sanjay Gandhi and resigned. Vidya Charan Shukla, Sanjay’s Chamcha, was appointed in his place. Poor Sanjay died in a plane crash, missing on his destiny to become Prime Minister.

In 1984, tragedy struck. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. Her son, the charming Rajiv Gandhi,  took over as India’s Prime Minister and ruled the country till he was also assassinated by the Tamil Tigers.

After a few years, Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi, the family’s Italian-Indian Bahu (daughter-in-law) was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress. After winning the General Election with a majority, she introspected and decided not to be the Prime Minister. Instead, she passed on the mantle to an outsider, the Oxford-educated economist, Dr. Manmohan Singh. However, the burden of managing the affairs of the Indian National Congress rests with the scion of the Nehru family, Rahul Gandhi.


Make no mistake, this is not restricted to one family alone. Perhaps Kerala’s minister could also learn lessons from other Indian states. For example, he could learn a thing or two from Kashmir.

Sheikh Abdullah, the six foot four inch tall, self-styled Lion of Kashmir, ruled as its first Chief Minister. Upon his death in 1982, his son Farooq Abdullah, a medical doctor and complete novice to politics, succeeded him as the Chief Minister. Farooq Abdullah’s son, Omar Abdullah was in turn elected to the 12th Lok Sabha, becoming a minister at the age of 29.

In the North East of India, P.A. Sangma’s children, Agata Sangma and Conrad Sangma learned their lessons well. Agatha Sangma was elected as an MP from her father’s Tura constituency and became the youngest minister of State in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Her brother, Conrad Sangam, P.A. Sangma’s son also became the youngest Finance Minister of the state Government at age 30.

In Rajasthan, Rajesh Pilot, a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi, was made a Union minister in the Government. Upon his demise, his son, Sachin Pilot, was elected to the Lok Sabha and became the Minister of Corporate Affairs in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s Government.

In Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal, the leader of Shiromani Akali Dal took on the mantle as the Chief Minister of Punjab in 2007. In 2009, he appointed his son Sukhbir Singh Badal as the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab. His daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal is the Union Cabinet Minister for Food Processing in Prime Minister Modi’s government. He also has her brother, Bikram Singh Majithia, serving as a minister in his cabinet.

In Madhya Pradesh, when Madhava Rao Scindia, the Oxford-educated Union minister of railways died, his well-heeled (Harvard-educated) son Jyotiraditya Scindia,  contested Lok Sabha elections, became an MP and later a Union minister.

In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav inherited the Chief Minister’s chair from his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav through the election. He is the Chief Minister of India’s largest state, at the age of 38.

In Bihar, when the legendary Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav had to go to jail, he appointed his wife Rabri Devi to handle affairs as the Chief Minister. His two young sons, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav are also in the active service of the nation. Tejashwi is currently Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet. His brother, Tej is also a minister in the Bihar Government. Tej is not known for his attention to detail, as during the swearing in ceremony, he got his oath wrong. The poor Governor had to get him to read it out twice.

In Andhra Pradesh, when the former Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy died in a helicopter crash, his son, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy felt he was the natural heir to the throne. He believed that people wanted him to be the Chief Minister. But, when the congress High command did not believe him to be Chief Minister material, he felt he was let down by the party, threw a hissy fit and started his own political outfit.

When Telangana became a separate state, its first Chief minister K. Chandra Shekar Rao appointed his son K. Taraka Rama Rao as the Minister for Panchayat Raj and IT, and his nephew Harish Rao as the minister for Irrigation, Marketing and Legislative Affairs. His daughter, Kavitha, got a party ticket and was elected to the 16th Lok Sabha. She is now a Member of Parliament.

Closer home in Tamil Nadu, the legendary actor-turned-Chief-Minister M.G.R, was succeeded on his death by wife, Janaki Ramachandran. She, in turn, was replaced by M.G.R’s ‘mistress’, Jayalalitha.

When her arch-nemesis, Karunanidhi ruled Tamil Nadu, he saw one son M.K. Stalin elected the Deputy Chief Minister;  another son, M.K.Alagiri, a union minister and his daughter, Kanimozhi, a Member of Parliament.


It doesn’t help that several members of these political families have been accused or are currently facing corruption charges.

The world’s largest democracy might pretend to be a harbinger of meritocracy, but a quick peek into how it elects its representatives offers truly startling results. The Hindi adage “Baap Ka Jaagir” (father’s property) stands true in spirit and in deed.

In India, plush ministerial postings and positions of power are shared among family members through the ballot box. India’s democracy has proved itself adept at establishing legitimate family fiefdoms.

Perhaps Mr. Jayarajan would have been better served had he taken the democratic route and had his relatives ‘picked’ through the ballot box. The key takeaway from all this is that you don’t appoint your relatives to head PSUs, you appoint them to head ministries.

It would have added legitimacy to the entire political appointment.


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