Rebranding the Political Career

Let me describe a job profile to you, and you could visualise how it would look on your CV.

  • Selected out of 56 applicants, to lead a group of 2 million people for a period of 5 years
  • Facilitated setting up of 230 large industries, 23,000 SMEs and many other businesses
  • Instrumental in increasing the contribution to the treasury by 11% to Rs.1,300 Crores
  • Implemented a scheme to develop 6 hospitals and 30 schools from the budget allocated
  • and lots more….

Now tell me how sexy would such a CV look. And how proud should the person having such a CV be of his achievements? And how much of respect should he get from various industry heads and people at large for such accomplishments?

Sadly the answer to none of the previous questions is positive.

As you may have guessed by now, I am describing an MP here (and let’s keep it to MPs for the time being, MLAs would complicate the discussion a bit). How many of us have realised the magnitude of responsibility that an MP carries, and even if he under-performs, what’s the importance of such performance for the economy as a whole?

The idea for this article originated from a debate I saw in NDTV-Hindu a few days back. The topic was “Should MPs be given a salary hike?” From what I could gather among the clamour, MPs haven’t had a salary hike in the last decade, and feel government clerks are earning more than them. I felt there was logic in their anger. And though the side arguing in favour of the MPs was really good (thanks to the frank and witty argument of Mr. EVKS Elangovan), the other side whose point was that MPs didn’t deserve the salary hike won hands down. And here the decision was given by the studio audience, where except 2 everyone else was against MPs getting a fatter pay-slip.

What struck me as odd in the above episode was that inspite of logic being on the side of the MPs (of course they need a hike, you can’t even buy a khadi dhoti with a salary which hasn’t changed in years), inspite of the opposition having some really poor speakers, inspite of an IIM-A grad with good amounts of credibility, Mr. E. Sarath Babu (who was sadly not even half as articulate as I expected him to be) arguing in favour of the MPs, they still lost the debate. So what’s it about MPs that people are so averse to? Why do they never win the favour of the public even though their job profile itself is being the true representatives of the people?

Let’s look at some of the common expectations and perceptions that people (not the man on the street but rather young educated people) associate with the political job. One thing is they want their politicians to be akin to social workers. The image of a good politician is being mapped to the Lal Bahdur Shastrys, Kamarajs and other such politicians of yore who died penniless and were known for their humble backgrounds. The ideal leader shouldn’t care a bit about money, but rather be phobic to it. He should accept token salaries of Re.1 (as was done by many not so ideal, infamously rich politicos), and concentrate only on the pleasure derived out of serving the public as a takeaway from the job.

Next comes the impression they have developed of day to day MPs. They are generally gundas with as many Swiss bank accounts as they have criminal cases against them in various courts. They generally have half the women in their constituency as their wives or mistresses which indeed presents them with a golden opportunity to make one of them contest from that seat in case they get put behind bars (or rather decide to take a vacation there). They are so obscenely rich that they use Rs.1000 notes as toilet papers, which also incidentally double up as bribes during election times to win some votes.

Now let’s come to the disconnect. There is obviously a wide disconnect between the expectations listed above and the reality perceived. This disconnect is probably as wide as that between heaven and hell (its always easier to get away with abstract examples!!). There is another disconnect between the reality perceived and the ground reality. Though most politicians are no saints, they aren’t as bad as portrayed above either (of course there are exemplary cases against which I can’t argue). This is mainly because our impression of politicians is framed by watching run-of-the-mill cinema or 24 hours news channels (now I seriously don’t know which of the two is farther away from reality).

There is a third disconnect and one which often goes unnoticed. This deals with how justified people are in expecting MPs to be saints who have sacrificed all material pleasures. Isn’t this asking for a bit too much? Think of it, you want your leaders to be damn good, and still can’t digest them living well. And here living well doesn’t mean amassing wealth, but rather having a comfortable existence in tune with the ways of the world. Don’t you think this is why many good people spurn away from a political career? If being a good politician means living the life of a government clerk while dealing with the responsibilities not even the CEOs of top firms are familiar with, then who would want to be a good politician?

Indian Parliament

The top jobs of the nation desperately need a rebranding. If firms could spend millions in optimizing the way an assembly line worker tightens a screw, then why shouldn’t we call for tightening the screws in the system which determines the fate of the world’s largest democracy. Can’t the HR lessons be applied here? Can there be a carrot which could attract top talents to the job and still keep them away from the dirt of corruption?

The political job has an inherent attraction. The ability to serve one’s nation, the pleasure derived from doing greater good. But this is often not enough for highly talented people. They have family and want a stable life.  They get multiple offers from top firms which pay them well and also keep them in good respect in their society. Though they want to help, they don’t want to risk their whole life and career for it. So what’s the solution?

This question led me to think of another organisation whose prospects faced similar difficulties in making a choice. The solution they came up with has largely contributed to their success in modern times. The organisation I am talking about is the Defence Forces. The defence establishment introduced the concept of short service commission. Under this bright young people could join the defence, serve their country for a short stint of around 5 years and at the end of that period decide whether to continue or leave the job to get settled with a more mainstream job. This had multiple benefits. One was that people were no longer apprehensive about dedicating their whole life to the country. This brought down the psychological entry barrier for the job by a great extent. The next benefit was that once people were in the job, they realised how much they really liked it and many stayed on. Also the discipline and work standards developed in the army made them inherently more attractive to recruiters for other jobs. So it was win-win for all.

But then how can we apply this principle to politics. Aren’t the two scenarios vastly different? I feel they aren’t.  For one, the apprehensions are the same. And also the period of commitment is similar. And if the job is done correctly, the attractiveness of the candidate at the end of the stint in other industries could be immense. So how do we go about doing this?

I feel the country can’t be reformed by independent candidates. No one takes them seriously (come on, that bloke wasn’t worthy of even a party ticket!!). And parties started by intellectuals hardly work. Lok Paritran, the widely publicised party started by a group of IITians, took a much shorter time to break-up than even an average campus relationship! I say, let the pros run the show. Let the established parties remain the mast heads (haven’t we studied about core competencies and the time it takes to build a brand, even a notorious one). And let the talents do what they do best, work for them.

The parties of India are facing a situation which is new to them. People are a lot more aware and super-stars no longer win them elections. Their reputations and credibility are at an all time low. With the emergence of an educated middle class, people are no longer satisfied with uneducated cattle-herds with criminal records running the show . Smitten by the Obama phenomenon, the urban public wants slick educated leaders. The victory of the likes of Shashi Tharoor over more established opponents is a good example for the same. So how to give the people what they want?

Parties could, in the next Lok Sabha election, call for resumes from top talents (people in their 30s-40s who are at the peak of their careers but disillusioned with their work or badly needing a change) for contesting in select urban constituencies. Anyway many such seats are literally given away to as yet unknown candidates. A panel of experts could shortlist ones with good amounts of experience and leadership qualities in various industries (disclaimer: any resemblance to the IIM placement process is purely coincidental!!). Then there could be either interviews to select the best among them, or still better share these shortlisted resumes online and let the voters decide which one should contest the election. When a party does something like this, its credibility gets a boost and it instantly becomes popular with the public (read as free publicity). This popularity also gets reflected in other constituencies where the old system is still in place. Result, party gains greater goodwill which is a necessary condition for victory (of course that won’t be a sufficient condition, as long as the opposition employs professionals in the field of booth capturing).

What’s in it for the “Talent”? That’s what is explained in the opening para of this article. If they win the election and display exemplary leadership during their tenure (which they should, considering that the precedents set are pretty poor), they would be some of the most sought after people at the end of their tenure. Of course the power bug may have bitten them by then and they may want to continue, but even then we stand to get far more educated leaders than we currently have. And if they want to go back to a more mainstream job, then I am sure the McKinseys and BCGs of the world would be ready to absorb them. Result, a better system than we started out with. And one where politics has become a lot more respectable profession than before. From the next election onwards the opposition party too may realise the merits of this and follow in the footsteps. In the meanwhile people from other constituencies would raise their voice saying that they too want professional leaders. And slowly but surely we would see a transformation in the way the country is run.

This brings us back to the argument of respectable pay scales. For any of the above to happen the government has to step in and make the pay of MPs comparable to highly lucrative corporate jobs that such candidates may have to leave. After all you can’t pay peanuts to professionals.

Ok, the above piece wasn’t fiction guys. I really believe it could happen, at least in an ideal world (which essentially translates to ‘it can’t happen’, but what the hell I am a believer). Agreed my argument was too simplistic and assumes that the actors involved are rational, but so is the case with mainstream economics. And that seems to be still in vogue anyway.

So keep your resumes ready guys. Who knows which party may read my blog first and call for applications!!!

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About casualstrokes

Random someone, whose views hardly matter, but still keeps expressing them.

Posted on August 31, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Nice post. Never thought on these lines. As you said, though simplistic, they are possible. Some roadblocks still exist, though. Do you feel middle class has that kind of an impact? I still feel most of middle class still never bothers to vote and it is the rural India including the BPL population that decides the leader.

    Some instances of having awesome resumes in our current Govt (There may and may have been many others, but currently i rem only these) are :- our very own PM Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram. The story of them joining politics should give us a fair bit of idea, how such people can be attracted.

    • But Warrier, even the PM having such an extraordinary background, hasn’t won a single election. He has always been a Rajya Sabha candidate from Guwahati. When he did contest a Lok Sabha election from South Delhi constituency in 1999, he lost pathetically.
      But his being made the PM by Congress for two successive terms inspite of not having much of a political clout speaks volumes about the change in the mentality of Indian parties on this issue.

  2. Nice fiction or should i say fantasy. The ground reality is totally diff. The likes of Gandhis & Hindu extremists still win votes. Parties aren’t gonna sacrifice things just for a few urban seats.

  3. Nice and thought provoking article.
    I feel you missed something when you listed down “what is in there for the talented?”
    Talented, by nature are mostly honest and open. They enjoy freedom of expression and fairness. Can any of the political parties ensure this? Shashi Tharoor was grilled for even casual remarks on “cattle class”. He, who freely criticized Gandhi families’ dominance, had to keep his mouth shut. He found it necessary to connect with countries’ youth through electronic media, but was criticized for that by party. His personal life was unnecessarily dragged into media and discussed.
    My point is, if talented needs to come to politics, they should be given a bit more of freedom. Being in a party automatically expects one to keep his personal biases ad convictions away and align to party’s decision. Is this what the talented would like to do? Same is the case with Civil Servants. There are many who are disappointed by the multiple ropes of control over them once they get the hard earned post; and they quit to join private sector. This has to change if they really need ‘the talented’ to join politics.

    • Ya I know. Lets hope what Tharoor faced was part of the teething trouble, which happens when an drastic change to the system occurs. But Tharoor on his part was successful in making quite an impact for a first timer, be it positive or not. The number of followers he has in Twitter is a testimony to this. Lets hope when more such people enter the scenario, they wont face such problems. Also with a new crop of politicians emerging, even though they are sons and daughters of existing ones, the tolerance levels may go up.

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