In India: Will Merit Triumph Over Dynastic Ties?

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Funeral procession of Andhra Pradesh state Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy moves through a street in Hyderabad.

More than in most countries, politics in India is about family. It is not unsual for wives to succeed husbands in office. Or sons or daughters take over from their fathers in states ruled liked fiefdoms. So, many people smirked and rolled their eyes earlier this year when Rahul Gandhi, a rising star in the ruling Congress Party, proclaimed his commitment to making sure merit and internal democracy were recognized in his party. After all, Gandhi's mother is the head of the party — and his father, grandmother and great-grandfather all Prime Ministers.

Now, three months after the Congress returned to power, a powerful politician's sudden death has thrown Gandhi's party a challenge: who will it choose to succeed Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who died in a helicopter crash? And will merit or family ties dictate the decision?

Hours after a massive search operation involving 11 aircraft and 2,000 personnel found Reddy's body deep in the jungles where his helicopter had crashed, the Congress party members in Andhra Pradesh banded together to press the party's central leadership to appoint his son, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, in his place. YSR, as the late chief minister was popularly known, was a giant in regional politics and had run a tightly centralized administration with himself as the locus of authority. He had designated no clear successor. Now, most legislators in the state, being staunch loyalists, are now displaying that loyalty by rallying behind Reddy's son.

Caste considerations are also playing out: the Reddys are a powerful community of traditional village headmen native to Andhra Pradesh, who continue to remain active in local, state and national politics. Their influence can be judged by the fact that for 36 years after the state was carved out in 1956, ten of the state's Chief Ministers have been from the Reddy community. The 12 Reddys among the present cabinet of ministers are keen to keep the top post within the community, showing how Indian politics also still runs mainly on caste and community considerations.

"This is typical of Indian politics," says political analyst Amulya Ganguli, "Whenever a politician dies, they try to bring in their son, daughter or wife to cash in on the sympathy factor." Reddy junior, however, is a first-time Member of Parliament and a political novice in a state where his father rose to be a political giant by rescuing the Congress Party there from suicidal infighting.

The heir-aspirant Jaganmohan Reddy has massive business interests including mining, construction and the media and his role in these industries has been controversial, with opposition party members raising loud questions of propriety. Yet, because of his lineage, 115 of the 156 state legislators of the Congress Party are rooting for him over Finance Minister K. Rosaiah, a seasoned politician who has headed various ministries over the years, and who has already taken over as interim chief minister. The other alternative being proposed is another Reddy: Jaipal Reddy, currently a minister in the federal government.

However, none has the charisma or the political acumen of the late YSR; and the Congress Party now seems set for another round of political infighting. Without the magnetic leadership of YSR, the state government may have to face a resurgence of the movement by the restive Telangana region to carve itself out as a separate state in India's federation. YSR had effectively quelled its political momentum during his five years in office. Any fractiousness in Andhra Pradesh may be bad news for the Congress party in the state and at the central government — it alone contributes 42 of Congress' federal lawmakers, the largest number from any single state.

The Congress Party will decide on the next chief minister after a seven-day mourning period ends. The party president Sonia Gandhi (Rahul's mother) must now choose whether to make a point in favor of experience and against dynastic succession. It is instructive to remember that of the 80 ministers in the present Congress-led coalition at the centre, 15 have close ties to political families. In the Congress' previous term, 10 ministers' parents were either current or former chief ministers. Yet, people voted for stability and performance and brought the Congress back to power. "What people want more and more are leaders who can deliver," says Ganguli, adding that while a shift from dynastic to merit-based politics would be good for India, "Change must come at a gentle pace."