By Charitha Ratwatte –
Most medieval civilisations were structured on the basis of obligations based on land. The word feudalism originated in Europe, much of the land in Europe was divided into ‘feuda’ – from which feudalism takes its name – which were land holdings bearing obligation to a landlord, who managed the land.
Cultivators were considered as tenants or vassals of this landlord or an institution, like a monastery or a temple. The dominant individual or influential family of the area owed allegiance to a ruler to whom they had to pay taxes and provide irregular troops of local tenants when required.
In most medieval systems all land was owned by the crown, and except for certain specific grants made to individuals or institutions, such as religious institutions, control and ownership of land was the factor and instrument through which the ruler exerted control.
Since communication infrastructure was at a primitive level, the local feudal leader literally lorded it over the tenant farmers, as the ruler or king was a remote person to the average tenant.
This concept of feudalism, which originally described a basically European system of governance and management of land, has also been used to describe an Asian system in which local dynastic nobility held lands through fealty to a ruler, in exchange for military service and payment of taxes collected from the tenant farmers.
The tenants were obliged to live on the landlord’s land and provide him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, in exchange for the provision of security from robbers, thieves and raiders.
In South Asia such arrangements have been described by using various terms such as Zamnidar, Jagir, Deshmukh, Chaudhary, Samanta, Ralahamy, Gambhara, Adigar, Dissawa, Rate Mahaththaya, Gam Muladaniya, Maniyagar, Vinayagar, Vanniyar, Mudliyar, Poriyar and Satrap, etc.
It is said that the idea of ‘Satrapies’ or provinces, which had a large amount of autonomy, yet owed fealty to a central monarch, owed its development in the Eastern world to the Persian Empire, under Cyrus the Great. These concepts of devolved authority would have in time been introduced to other parts of Asia.
Political and military power in time came to be dominated by these regional satraps, who became richer as their agricultural land became more productive due to sophisticated water management systems, and their control of local trade in and out of their localities.
Collecting of taxes for the distant Raja also gave the Satraps economic power, which buttressed their military might due to their having a large number of tenants whom they could mobilise for a show of force or even for a prolonged conflict at short notice. In time the Raja or King in certain circumstances was reduced to becoming only the first among equals among the regional nobility of the kingdom or empire.
The development of organised religion also introduced another centre of power and authority, a professional full-time clergy. Due to land grants made to their religious institutions and sometimes to themselves by rulers to win their support, the clergy became, in time, a power base of its own.
Constraints on absolute power
Feudalism has its detractors, who condemn the absolute power vested in the feudal rulers and their satraps. However, in most situations, the absolute power of feudalism was tempered by tradition, custom, religious principles, and rules of good governance, which evolved over the years.
One of the foremost examples of traditional and religious based limitations and controls on absolute feudal power are the Buddhist Rules of Good Governance – or the Dasa Raja Dharma. It is clear that in the Buddhist tradition of governance, there is no space for the exercise of absolute power. Power was always constrained by best practice, tradition, custom, and precept.
This is reflected in a missive from the Buddhist King Mahanama of Lanka, in 428 A.C. to the Emperor of China – the Middle Kingdom – the Son of Heaven, which lays down the philosophy and principles which govern the conduct of the ideal ruler: ‘Our ancient Kings considered hitherto the practice of virtue as their only duty; they knew how to rule without being severe and honoured the Three Jewels.; they governed and helped the world, and were happy if men practiced righteousness. For myself I desire respectfully in concert with the Son of Heaven, to magnify the good law in order save beings from the evils of continued existence.’
Other similar constraints on absolute power would be: constitutional conventions, written constitutions, the Rule of Law, a free media, an independent Judiciary, fundamental Human Rights and the UN Charter on Human Rights, the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, international treaty obligations, applicability of extra national laws – such as the obligations imposed on so called ‘sovereign’ nation states by membership of the European Union, persuasive pressure exerted by members of the Commonwealth of Nations on deviant members, etc.
The concept of a feudal dynastic rule has embedded itself in the minds of the ruled, due to the system of government being based on a hereditary feudalism for centuries. In countries such as France, Russia and the United States of America, which underwent political revolutions ‘equality’ of all citizens was the basis of governance and class based feudal thinking was pushed aside.
In England, where the Lords and the Commons revolted against the King on the issue of revenue and taxation, feudalism underwent reform, not abolition. In the spheres of influence of powerful nations which ruled empires or had dominant spheres of influence, concepts of equality, liberty and fraternity were introduced to temper the pre-existing feudal system.
Examples are the British Empire, the nations coming under the influence of the USA such as the Philippines and Japan, French, Belgian and Spanish colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the nations they dominated which were known as the ‘Satellite’ nations.
Cynics, however, maintain that the old feudal class was only replaced by a group of ‘new feudalists’ – the political class thrown up by a populist so-called ‘democratic’ process and that these new feudal elites dominate the system. Everyone is equal – but the new ruling ‘political class’ is more equal, than the others! Further, they have every manifestation of old feudalism. In some instances even resulting for all practical purposes, autocratic and non democratic family rule.
This issue, one which has been labelled, probably for lack of another name, ‘democratic feudalism’ has been thrown into sharp focus, in the past few days, after the All India Congress Party, meeting in a special session at the ancient Indian city of Jaipur, elected the 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, a former management consultant and present MP, as its Vice President.
Rahul’s great-great-grandfather, Mothilal Nehru, was a Allahabad-based landholding freedom fighter and lawyer who helped found the All India Congress party, which forced the British out of India; his great-grandfather was India’s first Prime Minister – Jawaharlal Nehru; his grandmother Indira Gandhi was also a Prime Minister of India; his father Rajiv Gandhi was also a Prime Minister of India.
Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi is president of the All India Congress Party, and the power behind the throne. She could have easily been the Prime Minister of India , if she chose to, but in a Machiavellian/Kautilyan master stroke, being of Italian descent, and well knowing that the Hindutvas of Bharat (traditional India) would not have tolerated a person of Italian descent being Prime Minister, stepped back and appointed Manmohan Singh.
For readers to appreciate what exactly Bharat is meant for its proponents, the comment by the leader of the conservative Rastriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) Mohan Rao Bhagwat, after the horrific gang rape case of a young Westernised girl in Delhi recently in a moving bus, that “rapes do not happen in Bharat, it only happens in the Westernised metropolitan cities”.
The fact is that cases of high caste men raping and sexually harassing (Eve teasing) poor Dalit and tribal women and girls is rampant in rural Bharat. An analyst has expanded this further: “Many think of India as harbouring two identities – Urban India – an iPad wielding, English speaking, fast growing democracy that prefers Machchiatos to Masala Chai; and Rural India (Bharat) – a predominantly lower caste, mystically minded mass of peasants who spend their days herding buffalos and wading through water clogged rice paddies and engaging when the need is felt, in what the modernist elite, quaintly refer to as “open defecation”.
India’s most revered brand
Rahul’s elevation to the post of Vice President makes it likely that he will be the party’s candidate for prime minister at the next election. The elevation has been greeted predictably, with jubilation by Congressmen, resignation by the party’s allies, and mockery from its opponents.
Addressing the party at its Jaipur sessions, Rahul made a startling statement: “My mother (Sonia) visited me in my room last night, she sat with me and she cried, because she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison to which politicians become addicted.” If young Rahul really understands that truism and does not forget it, India may have a future under him!
This Indian political family dynasty is not related to the revered Mahatma Gandhi, considered to be Jawaharlal’s mentor. It is in marketing terms, probably India’s most revered brand. The dynasty got the name after Indira married a liberal Muslim – Firoze Gandhi. Ramachandra Guha, a historian and political scientist has said of Rahul’s elevation: “Essentially he has nothing beside his name; he is just a well-meaning dilettante.”
Political analysts say many Indians – half of them under 25 – have little or no idea who Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi was or what they stood for, yet the 127-year-old Congress Party still turns only to members of the Gandhi family as possible leaders, thereby alienating the ordinary Indian. Guha says the Congress “is out of touch. They are like a decaying medieval court that does not know what the peasants outside are thinking.”
One advantage Rahul may have is his youth, but as Santosh Desai, writing in the Times of India points out: “Rahul Gandhi has been saved up for so long that by the time he has been pressed into service he is no longer the shiny new weapon he once was thought to be.”
Very much like the much-maligned Charles, the Prince of Wales, in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, who has a record tenure, and has grown stale, as the heir apparent Crown Prince! Many self-labelled dynasties have this problem, as we well know and have seen and are seeing in Sri Lanka!
India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party was predictably scornful about Rahul’s promotion – its senior leader Arun Jaitely said: “It’s only in feudal society that inheritance gives you the right to govern. In a democracy, its proven ability that gives the right to govern,” accusing the Congress of trying to convert India into a ‘dynastic democracy’.
Santosh Desai, makes another very valid point, often missed – there is a great advantage of the dynastic approach to the leadership of a party and nation, it is that it effectively neutralises all non-family contenders and short circuits all the infighting between potential leaders.
Congress’s Gandhi dynasty is ‘in a very peculiar way, a source of strength, because it prevents dissension of any meaningful kind’ to family rule. Again, we Sri Lankans know this well, and even a cursory analysis of our political leadership dynamics, even from before 1948, proves the point well beyond reasonable doubt.
Desai goes on to say that the announcement of Rahul being appointed a vice president of the Congress Party “gives some structural strength, it has put the leadership question beyond the pale of ambition and debate. By ensuring that no individual other than a family member can aspire to real power… the Congress does not have to worry about the question… who should lead it.”
History has shown that this issue of leadership has the potential of destroying political parties. Mihir Sharma, writing in the Business Standard, says: “They have created a post with absolutely no stated powers, and no clear responsibilities, and put him (Rahul) in it. This does not inspire enormous confidence, and it is far from clear what he’ll be actually doing.”
Rahul in his acceptance speech, over and above referring to the ‘poison of power,’ made other politically correct noises. He railed against the gross centralisation of political power by the elites of the Indian political class. He criticised the lack of meritocracy in politics and public life. Rahul said: “It does not matter how much wisdom you have, if you don’t have position, you have nothing. That’s the tragedy of India.”
Few will disagree that elitism, nepotism, and deeply-entrenched hierarchies are the curse of India and South Asia generally and its politics in particular. Rahul, who is youthful at 42, compared to India’s other geriatric politicians, also spoke of the growing disconnect between India’s youth and the increasingly arrogant political class. He correctly identified inequitable, unfair, and unethical exclusion and marginalisation as the fundamental issues to be addressed in India today.
But on a deeper analysis, the so-called ‘democratic feudalism’ is well entrenched in many parts of the world. For example, if one takes Asia as a sample for study, the political leadership in many democracies and semi democratic states remains a ‘family business’. Indeed one Sri Lankan politician proudly declared that indeed it was their dynasty’s family business!
Currently, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, China, Japan, and South and North Korea are all governed – or rather in most cases misgoverned – by a son, daughter, widow, widower, or sister of an earlier leader.
Singapore is the only country in which faith in dynastic rule has really rewarded its people. I am not saying the Republic of Singapore is a model democracy, but it is certainly is a relatively free, an economically well-off enclave in a generally chaotic region.
Lee Kuan Yew and his family – not only the current PM, who is a son, but members of the extended family; his daughter-in-law once ran Singapore telecom and the investment arm of the government, Temasek Holdings – have given Singaporeans a quality of life which is the envy of their neighbours. Of course the Confucian work ethic and discipline of the majority migrant Chinese population is a factor. But the Lee family’s People’s Action Party just resoundingly lost a by-election!
Other than the nonchalant attitude to accountability, misgovernment, nepotism and maladministration, ‘democratic feudalist’ leaders are burdened by other liabilities. For example, the legacies of internal political and personal rivalries are never forgotten for generations. Vengeance and revenge for imagined slights imposed three generations before are visited on the contemporary generation with glee!
Constantly the need to undercut and undermine a rival dynasty by appealing to the baser instincts of human nature, bribery , corruption and granting of sinecure posts, cross over by elected legislators, diplomatic assignments to descendants of the rival dynasty, to buy them off are rampant. We see it happening on a daily basis. Taxpayer’s assets and resources are abused for this purpose. The political leadership machinations in Sri Lanka’s history and the contemporary situation reflect this fundamental truth.
On top of this the international and regional agenda is poisoned by legacy issues. For example, it is said that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will never be able to normalise relations as long as the current dynasties are ruling these three countries. Their family history is a burden!
Recent developments in North East Asia have caused similar fears; Japan and North and South Korea are all ruled by descendants of dynasties who were rivals when their forefathers ruled their nations.
Shinzo Abe P.M. of Japan’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a suspected World War II war criminal, a former P.M. himself, who was involved in Japan’s Imperial military misadventures in China and Korea. South Korea’s President elect Park Geun-hye is a daughter of General Park, South Korea’s one-time dictator who fought against the Japanese, Chinese, and North Korean communists. Kim Jong Un of North Korea is the grandson of Kim il Sung who fought the Japanese and the South Koreans. The father of China’s new leader Xi Jinping- Xi Zhongxun was a leading acolyte of Mao Zedong, and fought for the Communists against Japan.
The current dispute among these countries over some uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, which were once memorably described by a Western Admiral as ‘just fly shit on a map,’ can be explained by the historic and legacy inability of the leaders to compromise due to the pressure of their forefathers’ conduct many moons ago.
Cynics talk of a ‘Kathmandu Solution’ as a way out of this dilemma! Conspirators got the Crown Prince of Nepal high on drugs and alcohol and sent him into the dining room of the palace with an automatic rifle, where the whole Royal dynasty was having dinner together, and he shot them all dead!
While such drastic and violent solutions are certainly not recommended, let’s give the last word to Tavleen Singh, New Delhi socialite, journalist and author, who has written a book on the ‘palace and courtiers’ inhabiting number One Race Course Road, New Delhi, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s official residence, entitled ‘Durbar’ (a Hindi word for the ruler’s court). Tavleen Singh’s words of wisdom: “I don’t think leadership is genetically passed on!”
The Syrians put it differently; when Hafez al Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar al Assad, the Syrians raised the question: “What is the similarity between our presidency and HIV Aids?” The answer: “They are both sexually transmitted!”
So also with democratic feudalism?