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Why don’t good people get into politics?

9 December 2012 396 views 9 Comments

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!

Related: Why “Good people” don’t join “Politics”

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.

9 Comments »

  • 1. Shailesh said:

    if FTI is serious about reducing ‘barriers to entry’, it has to take a serious look at the elephant in the room – FPTP system. The solution is proportional representation i.e. PR which FTI members seem to dislike (maybe because Sanjeev wrongly associates democracy with socialism).

    Anyways, here is my argument for PR and I challenge any FTI member to debate this with me in a format of his choice.

    http://democracy4india.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/proportional-representation-the-answer-to-indias-problems/

  • 2. prakash said:

    Why aren’t unicorns roaming today’s woodlands? Possibly, because there are no unicorns!

    Of course, you have placed a caveat about a discussion about good people, presusmably, because you have come across some good people.

    In what follows, the ‘you’ refers to anyone who likes to use the term ‘good people’ as a stock phrase, not merely or specifically to you – Shantanu.

    Let me turn your question on its head in an effort to find an answer. Can you name a few good people who are already active in current politics and are at a reasonably high level? Let us have one or two from each party. That will set a simple goal for any political aspirant.

    And if you are unable to name any, you would have answered your question and the answer, in that case, would be – The goodness, like the proverbial beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder!

  • 3. Dr. O. P. Sudrania said:

    Shantanu,
    I think your point is very pertinent but bad and good are only two sides of a coin with difference in degree and their loyalty. Today India has been converted into a loot field and stack away.

    Coming to the point, India is a notion of nations, divided by language,
    at its top besides the scourge of caste, religion and other such barriers. With the invention of IT, world has been rendered small. It has allowed the intervention of bigger powers in the affairs of the weaker nations, which is the potent instrument for perpetuation of corruption. Corruption centres round money. Take out money, both corruption and business will become irrelevant.

    Without being able to communicate well, it defeats every strategy. Hence India should first attempt to evolve a common medium of communication, which English is not. Vast majority have no idea of this
    language but it is the lingua franca of the ruling few elites living in their own dream world. Thus India has to evolve significantly before it comes in meaningful contact of realities with its common people.

    In metros, if you don’t know English language, you are treated very shabily and can’t get a little job done.

    Unfortunately this scenario has become even worse after the evolution of regional languages. This has built barriers between the common citizens. Look at Thakrey Inc, “How they are encashing on the regional filth”? Yes, good people who are successful in their own businesses and professions should develop strategies to enter politics. Then enact rules to encourage right businesses so that helps in generation of wealth. That wealth should be properly urilised for local developmental issues. Unfortunately it may be easy to say but difficult to do.

  • 4. L V Nagarajan said:

    Yes we need to get ‘good people’ (as per your definition) in to politics. MLA/MP salary is, as of now, quite good and hence it is not a bad incentive. In fact it is too good an incentive to attract ‘bad people’. ‘Good people’ are pretty sure they will lose, and that is the dis-incentive. Their chances of victory should atleast be 10% for them to think of contesting.
    One way is to get them through Rajya Sabha or Legislative Councils. Refer to 1 below.
    Or let some NGOs and civil society people propose them and support them openly. Refer to 2 below.
    Or let the people support them with funds. Refer to 3 below for funding suggestions.
    Or suitable electoral reforms for government funding of elections with qualifications for contestants. Refer to item 4 below.
    Otherwise we can only keep commenting like this.
    1. http://lvnaga.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/democrazy/
    2. http://lvnaga.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/democratic-revolution/
    3. http://lvnaga.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/a-candidate’s-…dian-elections/
    4. http://lvnaga.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/indian-democracy/
    Nagarajan

  • 5. Shekhar Kibe said:

    The issue of electoral reforms is raised by Shri L.K.Advani since long time. The expensive elections campaign is the main hurdle for the honest people to work in the politics. As soon as these reforms comes in to the effect, the “Good People” will start to think for involvement in the politics.

  • 6. B Shantanu (author) said:

    Underlining the point about reform in campaign finance laws:

    The root cause of both is the lack of any provision in the Constitution for the financing of elections. In Britain where the average constituency covers 380 square kilometres and has around 60,000 voters this is a nuisance. In India where the parliamentary constituency covers 6,000 sq km and holds 1.3 million voters it has proved a catastrophe.

    In the 1950s, the need for funds was met to a large extent by the rising industrial class and by the Princes. But when these two began to desert the Congress in favour of the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh in the 1960s, Indira Gandhi banned company donations to political parties and abolished the privy purses. After that the only way in which political parties could stay in the game was to break the law.

    Over the ensuing decades, two sets of predatory networks have developed to finance, or otherwise influence, elections. The first is of criminals who provide the muscle to intimidate voters; the second is of local money-bags and power-brokers who rally support for candidates belonging to one or the other party in exchange for favours when it comes to power.

    As these have become more entrenched, they have virtually eliminated intra-party democracy at the grass roots and progressively reduced the number of constituencies in which State and Central party leaders can bring in fresh candidates chosen on the basis of merit. In the current Parliament, for instance, at the last count 159 MPs had criminal charges pending against them. Another 156 are second generation ‘princelings’ whose parents established the clientelist networks that now serve them. The State Assemblies are even more closed to new aspirants: 44 per cent of the MLAs in Bihar, 35 per cent in West Bengal and 30 per cent in Gujarat face criminal charges. The proportion of ‘pocket boroughs’ is also higher in the States than at the Centre.

    Predatory state

    The perennial need for money lies at the roots of the predatory state that India has become. Today, its ruling class consists of corrupt politicians who are served by an extortionate bureaucracy and police that are shielded from public wrath by nothing less than the Constitution of India.
    From Overcome by a sense of betrayal by Prem Shankar Jha

  • 7. B Shantanu (author) said:

    A brief primer on why politicians have to be corrupt – - and some food for thought (from a brief conversation with a friend yesterday):
    The main reason why politicians have to be corrupt is the amount of money needed for campaigning* (& the fact that it needs to be “recovered” since it has not exactly come from donations).
    This money is not only needed for publicity and such but also to manage a large volunteer network and the logistics of a campaign Since there is no (as yet) of political volunteering in India, the volunteers need to be “looked after” too.
    And finally, money is needed to get a leg up in the next election, so that the cycle can continue..
    Since the possibility of making money is maximum in illegal activities (as compared to rent-seeking or dispensing licenses etc), this is where crime comes..
    Similarly the possibility of making money is increased if you hold a position (e.g. as a Minister) since you now have disproportionate “discretionary” powers.
    In fact “discretionary powers” is the reason why “professional politicians” prefer to start their careers in municipal corporations or as an MLA rather than an MP (An MP has significantly less “powers” to dispense favours than an MLA).
    Unless the root cause of political corruption – i.e. campaign finance – is attacked, no number of laws or Lokpals will help..
    This is also the reason why most sincere, committed and thoughtful people of integrity stay away from active politics..
    For an honest person, without finds, without supporters, without celebrity status or media “recall” value, with only noble intentions behind him/her the odds are stacked very high.
    In fact, there is almost no possibility of even making a significant impact, let alone winning.
    So how do you change this situation? Think. Share. Comments welcome, here and over at the blog..

  • 8. Prakash said:

    I am glad to see the statement “A brief primer on why politicians have to be corrupt”. One consequence of this acceptance would be the end of distinction between good and bad people as identified by how corrupt a politician is.

    One could discuss whether it is possible to eradicate corruption, or one could keep the issue of corruption on the back-burner for the moment, and discuss whether it is possible to strive for a better representation of people.

    There are logistic and cognitive problems. A single person can keep track of about 150 others (friends, family, etc). Fundamentally, when the size of a constituency is as large as a million+, there is no true representation. Conversely, there is little chance people will ever get a realistic idea of a candidate’s work, merit, or commitment. In such situation, and in today’s world where money is the measure of everything including affection,care,education,health,and honour, money becomes the basis of judgment.

    Unless the democratic process itself is upgraded, it will be hard to get rid of corruption. (Please also be aware that India is not the only place where corruption is evident. I suspect US, UK, and Japan display similar corruption, however, it wears good clothes and is heavily made-up, so it is not easy to take notice of).

  • 9. B Shantanu said:

    Placing this link here for the record: Party economics — in black and white
    Discourse on black money should include ways to bring more transparency to finances of political parties, by NEETI BIYANI, JULY 28, 2014.
    Hope to post excerpts soon…

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