Dynastic Politics at Work

There were lifted eyebrows in America when Pakistan's largest political party chose a 19-year-old Oxford student to be its leader. But then Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is only following in the footsteps of his murdered mother, Benazir Bhutto, who took over the party after its founder and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged. Benazir's shady widower, Asif Ali Zardari, will act as regent.

The dynastic tradition is rife in South Asian politics. Parties often come to be seen as reflecting the will of one powerful personality whose successors view the party as their personal property. The pattern is familiar. The progenitor dominates the party, and the faithful hope to find spiritual continuity with family heirs becoming political successors. Sometimes these dynasties find successors that are equal to the task. Sometimes not.

The Oxford-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was as ruthless as he was charming, and the Pakistan People's Party he founded promised to bring democracy to Pakistan. In the end he was overthrown in a military coup, and eventually hanged for complicity in a political murder. His Harvard- and Oxford-educated daughter grasped the mantle, and become the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country. She, too, was ousted by the military, and was assassinated last month attempting a political comeback.

In Bangladesh, which broke away from Pakistan in 1971, Khaleda Zia followed Benazir's example. When her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, was assassinated during a failed military coupe in 1981, Zia had little interest in politics. But the Bangladesh Nationalist Party chose her to lead, and she became not only the country's first female prime minister, but its longest-serving one. Like Benazir's, her ministry ended in a swirl of corruption charges.

Indira Gandhi provides the best example of female primogeniture, having been the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a Cambridge graduate. The Oxford-educated Indira became first daughter after her mother died, and often accompanied Nehru on foreign tours.

After her father's death in 1964, she soon used her political skills and sharp elbows to gain control of the Congress Party and the prime ministry - the first woman to do so. She, more than her father, considered the party her family's birthright, and, like Benazir Bhutto, made sure that nonfamily members would not succeed her.

She was assassinated in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards who were infuriated by her attack on militants in the Sikh holy-of -holies, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Indira Gandhi would have liked to see her favorite son, Sanjay, succeed her, but he died in an airplane crash. So it was that another son, Cambridge-educated Rajiv, was sworn in as the head of the Congress Party and prime minister.

Rajiv lost the election of 1989, and was campaigning to win it back when a Tamil suicide bomber blew herself up and killed him in 1991. It was thought that the Tamils of Sri Lanka were revenging themselves for India's interference in their war for independence.

The Congress Party then turned to Sonia, Rajiv's Italian wife, who at first refused, but then accepted the party presidency in 1998. She could have been prime minister following the party's success in the 2004 elections, but refused it, fearing her foreignness would split the nation.

This should all be familiar to American voters. John Ashcroft became the first senator to be defeated by a dead man, Mel Carnahan, who died a couple of weeks before the 2000 election, but whose name remained on the ballot. His widow, Jean, took his Senate seat.

Governor George W. Bush was picked by the Republican establishment for the presidency in 2000 on the strength of his father's name.

It is Hillary Clinton, however, who provides the best example of dynastic politics at work. She is the candidate of the Democratic establishment seeking a restoration because of her husband's eight years in office and her own Indira-like sense of entitlement.

Many have pointed out that if Hillary is elected, and serves two terms, we would have either a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for 28 years. But tribal politics in America has other similarities with South Asia in the elite education of its leaders. If Clinton wins the White House for two terms, we would also end up having a person with a degree from Yale in the White House for 28 years. Maybe that's why Barack Obama, with his Harvard Law degree, bills himself as the candidate of change.

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