Justice V R Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court made a distinction between the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘rule of life’. In a judgment in 1975, he used this distinction to uphold the election of a Muslim candidate who had won supposedly by appealing to his Hindu constituents that his mother was Hindu. It was a sectarian appeal and contrary to the law. But Justice Iyer gave greater weight to the primordial, irrational realities of social relations in day-to-day life. In his mind, this sometimes trumped the higher, rational ideals embodied in the rule of law and the Constitution. To do otherwise, he felt, would mean not listening to the voice of the people.
Justice Iyer was wrong —it is dangerous for a judge not to uphold the rule of law. The judge was articulating, however, the ever-present tension between a universal ‘rule of law’ and an insular ‘rule of life’ at the heart of India’s democracy. The human DNA is imprinted with a natural propensity to favour family, friends and community. These loyalties invite corruption and nepotism in the absence of strong incentives in favour of impartiality. The social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner, labelled it ‘tyranny of cousins’. The historian David Gilmartin equates the ‘rule of life’ to sva-dharma, duties to one’s family, caste and community. In contrast, the rule of law is akin tosadharana dharma, duties which reflect the higher, universal ideals of the Constitution.
The great achievement of our Constitution was to create strong incentives to behave impersonally in public life. But India’s political parties have become family firms. They are overflowing with relatives and cronies, thus undermining the impartial principle. This is at a time, ironically, when our best companies are managed by professionals from outside the family. Almost a third of India's parliamentarians in 2009 had a hereditary connection, according to Patrick French in India: A Portrait. Every MP under the age of 30 had inherited a seat; more than twothirds of the 66 MPs under age 40 were hereditary; every Congress MP under the age of 35 was hereditary. Because of the ‘tyranny of cousins’ merit does not prevail. Since there is no democracy inside any party, the inheritors often behave like feudal lords. Napoleon would have called these mediocrities “hereditary asses, imbeciles, and this curse of the nation.” This is why it is so difficult to come up with a leader for 2014.
The hope for the 2014 election may, however, lie with some of our best performing states (such as Bihar) whose leaders did not inherit the mantle and came up through merit. But Sukhbir Badal, heir to the Akali Dal, put up a spirited defence of dynastic leaders. Soon after his party retained power in February 2012, he said, “I have lineage and this is a huge plus, but the post is not hereditary. If I fail to deliver, I will be voted out the next time.” Yes, the distinction between legacy and dynasty is useful, but it’s not enough consolation. India’s “tyranny of cousins” has drastically reduced our options for merit-based leadership in 2014.
Raja was asked if he was surprised by the hero’s welcome he received in Chennai. “No”, he replied, “It was natural”. As natural, perhaps, as passing along hundreds of crores of ill-gotten money allegedly to the Karunanidhi family. Katherine Hepburn’s advice in The African Queen was really meant for Raja rather than Humphrey Bogart. "Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above," she said. Leaders of all our political family firms might ponder over it.