As must be obvious to many of you by now, getting people actively involved & thinking about politics is something very close to my heart. So last fortnight when a young professional asked me, “Why don’t “good people” get into politics?” I thought this was worth a post. To avoid a side-argument on who are “good people”, let me hastily clarify that “good people” is just a broad, handy label that includes accomplished, professionally successful women & men of integrity willing to commit a significant part of their life to public service.
Back to the question. A week earlier, I ran a poll on my blog which threw up some interesting data on this question. Almost half the respondents cited 2 main factors: “Family Responsibilities” and “Loss of Income”. Family responsibilities are of course personal (and vary widely) so I cannot really comment but I guess they are at least partly linked to the second reason cited: “Loss of Income”.
In the world of venture capital & start-ups, we have a popular phrase: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!”. It has more than a grain of truth in it. And that is probably a major reason why otherwise very successful, talented and sincere individuals do not even consider politics as a career option. It simply does not pay.
Not that such individuals are looking for fat pay-packets. But they expect to be able to maintain a certain standard of living & fulfill their family responsibilities. The salary that MPs and MLAs get leaves no room for that.
Today, India’s finest women & men shun politics like a plague. The present set-up has no attraction for the genuinely public-minded individuals. Many such individuals branch off into social causes or charities instead. That has to change. A good beginning in this direction would be to have a significantly better rewards and incentives structure in place. But better rewards and incentives are only part of the story.
We then need to work on the far bigger challenge of dismantling “barriers to entry”. The first of these is the enormous amount of money that is now required to contest almost any MLA or MP election.
The second are the “built-in” incentives in the system for corruption and unethical behaviour that make accomplished individuals simply uninterested in representing us as political leaders.
The “incentive” is the extraordinary control politicians enjoy over large part of public finances and public assets. The “compulsion” for unethical behaviour comes in the form of huge huge amount of money needed to contest any decent-sized election. Of course, there are limits on electoral expenses. These are routinely violated & expenses are under-reported as a matter of course . A particularly egregious example is the “expenditure” incurred by ex Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan on Salman Khan’s meetings in his constituency.
Since the limits are so low (& fly in the face of reality), the only way anyone realistically stands a chance of winning is by lying about the amount of money they spent on the campaign. As fellow activist Nixon Fernando mentioned, “We have effectively set up a gate post in politics (which says) ‘you have to be dishonest to enter’.”
In the words of my friend, Sanjeev Sabhlok, “the qualifications for being given a ‘ticket’ to contest elections are: possession of a modest intellect, capped with serious moral defects, the ability to play fast and loose with public money, close association with genuine, mafia-type criminals and ability to threaten honest candidates to prevent them from contesting elections”.
What is the solution? Clearly electoral reforms have to be top priority. Such reforms would necessarily include some element of state funding of elections.
Electoral spending & campaign finance are at the heart of large-scale corruption in India – something that a lot of people appear to be unable or unwilling to recognise & accept. So we need better accounting, tighter auditing and removal of archaic spending limits.
State funding of elections is a critical part of these “solutions”. Next would be a very significant increase in wages of MPs and MLAs while getting rid of all of the “perks”. Third would include having some kind of accountability. How? By helping people become politically aware and asking them to monitor the performance of their MPs, MLA and Corporators.
In parallel, let us work on creating a “demand” for “good people” to get into politics. Let us help our friends understand the damage that political apathy inflicts on a society and a nation. Unless at least a few of these things happen, there is little chance of “good people” getting into politics, much less win.
Why does all this matter? It matters because at the core of rot today is the utter failure of our political leadership. A leadership that has today reduced to a group of largely incompetent men & women, with dubious morals, with little stake in development and poor understanding of the challenges we face. This must change. As the redoubtable (late) C K Prahalad pointed out, India’s crisis today is a “crisis of leadership“
…India has more people waiting to be led than any other place on earth. It is time to act and act decisively.
Join us in asking, demanding these reforms & changes. Talk to your friends, neighbours & family members about this. And next time someone visits you to ask for your vote, ask them for their views on these steps. This is how change will come, slowly but surely. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!
Update: A brief excerpt from Atanu Dey’s “The Three-ring Anti-corruption Circus is in Town”
The evidence is overwhelming that India’s political leaders are uniformly corrupt. It cuts across political party lines. Public corruption is not contained in some specific geographic region. It is not bounded by linguistic or religious divides.
The percentage of criminals in the various state and central legislative bodies far exceed that in the general population. What’s more, that percentage has been increasing with time. And the magnitude of the corruption has also been increasing. The average corrupt deal was in tens of crores of rupees a couple of generations ago — small change compared to the deals these days which is counted in billions of dollars.
If Indians are not characteristically uniformly dishonest, how is it that India’s politicians are so acutely dishonest? Perhaps the system selects the most dishonest and the least principled.
Here’s how it works. The rewards of political power are enormous. Without loss of generality (as economists put it), let’s consider the position of an MP (member of parliament.) As an MP, a person has the opportunity to make $1 billion. Mind you, there’s no compulsion to actually make that amount of money — merely the opportunity. Now let’s ask who is likely to become an MP? Contesting the elections are A, B, C, and D. Of the four, Mr D is competent, honest, and hardworking. The rest are venal incompetent criminals. Mr D will not steal a penny if he were to become an MP, and therefore he cannot afford to spend more than whatever he can raise from his supporters. But A, B and C — they will make a $1 billion if elected.
So they are willing to spend quite a bit of future loot, and this they can raise that from their cronies who will in essence be making an investment, the return on which they are assured post the elections.
The corrupt can outspend the honest in any elections because the former will recover the expenses (and more) upon assuming office. It should not come as a surprise that India has degenerated into a kakistocracy — rule by the most corrupt and the least principled.
It is the opportunity to make billions of dollars as an official of the government that is the proximate cause of the criminalization of the government. In turn, the proximate cause of the opportunity to make billions is that the government has control over vast areas of the economy. Being in government gives one immense discretionary powers — to grant or deny licences, to block and prevent legitimate economic activity, to extract rents wherever possible. The more powerful the government, the less power the people have. The larger the government, the less freedom the people have.