The South Asia Channel

Is This the End of Dynastic Politics in South Asia?

Those who have been watching closely may see a noticeable change in the national politics of India and Pakistan. In both countries, upstart third parties are challenging the traditional two-party system, promising fresh approaches to the stale activities of dominant parties. In both instances, they promise to champion the needs of their people and to free them from the oppressive grip of institutionalized corruption. Their messages are deeply populist, and they have each attracted millions of followers during their brief life spans.

For outside observers, these new parties evoke wonder and curiosity. Are we starting to see cracks in the dynastic politics that have long ruled nearly all South Asian countries? With Nawaz Sharif again in power in Islamabad, Rahul Gandhi set to take leadership of the Congress Party in India, and another election win by Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, dynastic politics remains a powerful force in the region. But is it somehow different this time?

In New Delhi, the rapid rise to national prominence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which translates as the "Common Man Party," is unprecedented in India politics. Founded only in 2012, AAP grew out of anti-corruption protest movements earlier that year and won enough seats in Delhi's December 2013 Legislative Assembly election to form a minority government. AAP's charismatic and activist leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was installed as Delhi's chief minister, the first person from outside the two major parties to hold that post. Although Kejriwal resigned after only 49 days in office over the failure of an anti-corruption bill in the assembly, the AAP has become a national phenomenon. Polls forecast the party to win up to 12 seats in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, during national elections this spring.

Across the border, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), which translates to "Pakistan Movement for Justice," has emerged as a legitimate national force in Pakistani politics. Founded in 1996 by Imran Khan, a former national cricket star, the party saw a surge in popularity during the troubled 2008-2013 presidency of Asif Ali Zardari and positioned itself as a nationalist alternative to the two mainstream political parties. Its strategy worked: PTI emerged from the 2013 elections as the third-largest party in the national parliament, the second-largest in Punjab, and the single-largest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This strong showing positions PTI as an influential political entity in critical parts of the country, and a group that can no longer be ignored. Like the AAP in India, the PTI's rise has been remarkable.

As refreshing as it has been to watch these new parties take hold in South Asia, there is something disturbingly familiar about them. Despite their creative stances on important issues and their representation of constituencies that otherwise lack a voice, they share a distressing feature with their predecessors. At the core of their organizations, both the AAP and the PTI are parties that are built around a charismatic individual, rather than a platform of policy ideas.

South Asia has no shortage of parties fitting the practical definition of a dynasty. In almost every country, there are well-known examples of parties that have kept the same leader or family of leaders for decades on end, through electoral wins and losses, precluding other party members from ever taking the top spot.

These parties may not seem to have much in common with upstarts such as the AAP and the PTI, but even the old stalwarts were once new and fresh, led by charismatic individuals who offered a message of hope to downtrodden populations. The intervening decades have made dynasties of them all: India's Congress Party, still run by the Nehru-Gandhi family; the Pakistan People's Party, headed since its inception by the Bhuttos; and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, controlled almost entirely by the Rahman-Zia family since its founding. The only notable exception is India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which shows no sign of passing power to familial heirs.

The AAP and the PTI thus far escape being lumped into this category, but this may only be because they are so new. They certainly both appear to be trending in this direction.

After all, what is the PTI without Khan? He has been the head of the party since its founding and shows no signs of slowing down. The party's identity is wrapped up in his own; he is the public face of the party, and he leads nearly all major campaign activities. Even the Twitter feed on the PTI website is devoted almost exclusively to tweets by Khan himself. Over the past year, partly in recognition of the realities of governing one of Pakistan's provinces, Khan has recruited several technocrats and heavy hitters into PTI. Such growth in the party suggests a possible path away from a dynasty - but whether PTI takes that path is still a big question.

Similarly, the AAP seems to be a vehicle for Kejriwal to legitimize his political views. His name is synonymous with the party, he has served as the party's most senior office-holder, and he is the head of the party's political affairs committee and its national executive. While the party's official election symbol is a broom, a picture of Kejriwal is the most prominent image on AAP's official website. Since the AAP is a brand-new entity, its future reliance on Kejriwal cannot be fully predicted, but the first two years indicate he will lead the party for a long time to come.

Even so, the entry of the PTI and AAP into South Asian politics is a positive development. The injection of fresh ideas and real electoral challenges serve as diligent reminders to dominant parties that they cannot take their grip on power for granted. It also helps keep the political elite grounded in the interests of those who elect them to serve.

Nor is this a criticism of either Kejriwal or Khan. In part, it is recognition of their successes. They have displayed the courage necessary to take on the political establishment, and they inspire such fierce loyalty among their followers that it is hard to imagine anyone else heading their parties.

As the AAP and the PTI grow and mature, however, this personal loyalty raises the question of whether either party could continue to exist without its well-known leader. Could the parties' ideological underpinnings outlast their founders' direct involvement - and that of their heirs? At this point, the answer unfortunately seems to be no.

Until South Asian political parties can answer yes to this question, dynastic politics will be alive and well in the region. New political parties will arise and shake things up, as is always the case in South Asia. But until parties are based on ideologies, rather than personalities, South Asians will continue to trade one dynasty for another.

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.

NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images