09/18/2015 12:05 EDT | Updated 09/18/2016 05:12 EDT

What the World's Political Dynasties Can Tell Us About Justin Trudeau

Not all political dynasties are created equal -- one key difference lies in the calibre of their descendants. Last year, the Liberal Party elected as its leader Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Warren Bennis, a noted scholar on leadership, said, "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That's nonsense."

Steve Russell via Getty Images
OTTAWA, ON- OCTOBER 23 - Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau looks toward the War Memorial during a vigil in the aftermath of a shooting in Ottawa, where a soldier murdered at the War Memorial and a gun battle in Parliament killed the alleged gun man. in Ottawa. October 23, 2014. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In the past weeks, several commentators have mentioned the American political dynasties of Bush and Clinton in the same breath as the Indian political dynasty of Nehru-Gandhi. But not all political dynasties are created equal.

One key difference lies in the calibre of their descendants.

Although George W. Bush is the son of a president, he was not handed the presidency on a platter. He has a BA in History from Yale and an MBA from Harvard. He was elected governor of Texas for two consecutive terms before running for the presidency.

Similarly, current candidates Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton are highly qualified and have proven themselves to be very able. Jeb graduated with several honours from the University of Texas with a BA in Latin American Studies. He worked first with a bank, and then in real estate where he rose to become a partner in a company. He was appointed Secretary of Commerce for Florida, and later, he was elected Governor of Florida for two consecutive terms.

Hilary has a BA in political science from Wellesley and a law degree from Yale. She taught and practiced law and rose to become a partner at a law firm. She was elected senator from the state of New York and under Obama, she served as secretary of state for four years.

India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty began on a high with Jawaharlal Nehru: brilliant, accomplished and committed. However, his descendants -- his daughter, Indira; her sons, Rajiv and Sanjay; Rajiv's wife, Sonia; and their son, Rahul -- are another, more hazy story.

Historian Ramachandra Guha puts it bluntly:

"Whereas for him [Nehru] joining politics was a matter of commitment and sacrifice, for the others politics has served as a comfortable safety net. Jawaharlal could have been a top lawyer, or an internationally renowned writer; he chose to fight for the freedom of his country instead. The cases of Rajiv, Sanjay and Rahul are all too different. After having failed to distinguish themselves in other fields -- flying, car production and management, respectively -- they took their mother's advice to enter the family business -- where there was a place reserved for them at the very top."

Another key difference in these political dynasties is the cultures of the countries.

India is very familiar with and accepting of dynasties. It has a long history of Hindu kings, Moghul emperors and British royalty.

Over the years, the Congress party has shown an irrational idolization of the Gandhi family and seems bereft without a Gandhi at its helm, regardless of their competence. Even now, in spite of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party's humiliating defeat at the hands of Narendra Modi and the BJP last year, Rahul remains vice-president of the Congress party, and his mother Sonia, the president.

The Nehru-Gandhi clan is not the only family in Indian politics. Politics is a hereditary business in India. When India's new parliament was sworn in in 2014, more than a quarter of the MPs were from political families, with the Congress party figuring at 40 per cent and the Samajwadi party at 100 per cent. In the U.S., some six per cent of legislators and parliamentarians have family members who were also office holders.

Dynastic politics in India seems to work for both the politicians and the public. Children of politicians are assured of at least one career. Barriers to entry are low: they have their parents' name, network and political machinery at their disposal. Their chance of election is high. And in turn, many Indians -- particularly those who may not be fully literate -- feel more secure voting for a hereditary politician regardless, it seems, of the candidate's competence.

A recent survey found that 46 per cent actually prefer to vote for a candidate from a political family: voters recognize the name; they feel they know what to expect, offering a sense of continuity and stability; the candidates seem to have a political background; and the voters feel that, once in office, the candidates will have the backing and advice of their experienced family members and will therefore be able to accomplish more things on their agenda. Some of these advantages and to some extent also apply in the U.S.

India does not just veer towards hereditary politics, but hereditary occupations in general. This is eased by a traditional and centuries-old caste system, where the castes themselves were originally structured along occupational lines and crossing these boundaries was not encouraged. Today, hereditary occupations are a weapon in an ambiance of extreme competition and an uneven playing field. People utilize every advantage to ensure a good career for their children. Politics is viewed as particularly promising because, although the pay on paper may appear meager, it is supplemented by unwritten powers and perks that can be invaluable -- not only for the officeholder but also for his descendants.

Whether in politics or in marriage, Indians rarely evaluate the individual on his own merits, but rather on the bigger picture he represents. It's not just his accomplishments that count - in fact they may be minimal - but they are added to those of his relatives because it's the extended family that completes his image and gives him the power to get things done.

If India is the cult of the family, the U.S. is the cult of the individual. Based on the immigrant experience of breaking away from the past and the pioneer spirit of making it on one's own and the belief that anyone can become president, self-accomplishments are appreciated and in fact encouraged in the U.S. In such an environment, the familiar names of Bush and Clinton may be as much liabilities as assets.

As in several other matters, Canada seems to be following America's lead in cultivating political dynasties. Last year, the Liberal Party elected as its leader Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Unfortunately, Justin's resume looks less like Jeb's and Hillary's and more like Rahul's. And even without any motherly insistence, the Liberal Party believes that Justin is their best chance for success. In the upcoming federal election of October 19th, we'll find out if the nation concurs.

Warren Bennis, a noted scholar on leadership, said, "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That's nonsense."

Yet in the East and in the West, that belief seems hard to shake.


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