Why it is time we invested in political entrepreneurship

We are doomed to suffer kakistocracy till we learn to invest in our political entrepreneurs.

 |  6-minute read |   05-07-2021
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Over the past two months or more, India has suffered from governance failures on multiple levels. Without going into the politics of the issue, most would agree that a lot of what transpired was man-made and could have been prevented with better political leadership at the helm, at all levels. It is ironic that while most of us expect good governance, we are loath to even engage, let alone invest, in politics, which is the bedrock of governance in any polity.

I am in the middle of reading A Promised Land by Barack Obama and feel inspired by his journey from Hawaii to Harvard and onwards to the Senate, ultimately culminating in the White House. A key takeaway from the book is the fact that former President Obama takes justifiable pride in. It is the role of ordinary people in fuelling his campaign versus big-ticket funders. By his own admission, it was this community of volunteers, donors, supporters who were key to his success. These were ordinary people of all hues who got involved in his various campaigns across the years, from his district race to the senate race and ultimately his bid for the White House. These were people who believed in the abilities of their leader, his vision to bring about change, and were ready to invest in the political entrepreneur that was Obama; in the form of US$ 5 donations, volunteering, or simple support. These were the people who made Obama 'President Obama'.

main_barack-obama-a-_070521014252.jpgA Promised Land by Barack Obama highlights the justifiable pride that the former US President takes in the role of ordinary people in fuelling his campaign versus big-ticket funders. (Photo: Getty Images)

More than a decade ago, this very dream spurred me to leave my plush corporate job, an impending Green Card, and move bag and baggage to India with my wife and kid in tow. A belief in political entrepreneurship and a burning desire to make a difference made me join politics. In order to equip me for the job, I studied at the Harvard Kennedy School whose motto of “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Do For Your Country,” inspires me till today, although my belief in the ability to make a difference has jaded a bit.

The reason? The apathy of the educated class towards the politics of the country. Contrary to Obama’s experience, a political entrepreneur in India, who is doing politics by choice and not by compulsion, finds himself/herself alone, very alone. Relatives and close friends simply do not understand the logic of leaving everything behind and risking a career for something like politics which apparently requires zero skills. The question that the political entrepreneur often faces is, “If this is what you wanted to do then what was the use of studying so much?” The implicit assumption being that politicians ought to be illiterate brutes. Isn’t it then self-contradictory to expect good governance from such a lot?

There are strong stereotypes associated with politicians in India. It is supposedly the domain of either sons and daughters of politicians, post-retirement plan of bureaucrats, the hobby of media personalities like movie stars, rehabilitation option for goons, or the preoccupation of people who have got nothing better to do. A person from a middle-class family is not supposed to enter politics and if he/she does, then the political entrepreneur is the subject of much-veiled ridicule, and this is just the beginning. Politics is expensive and in order to sustain his/her politics, if the political entrepreneur reaches out for help from friends or family, then the oft-repeated refrain is, “We are non-political and do not want to be seen as aligned to any political dispensation, hence cannot help.” The same people would help an NGO doing Covid-relief work but would not help a political entrepreneur who is seeking funds to help people in his/her constituency, just because he/she is political. This begs the question: how will a political entrepreneur ever contest an election without accepting political funding from dubious sources, in the absence of support from people who know the person, his/her abilities, sacrifices, and struggles, yet reduce him/her to the colour of their polity?

Another well-intended but ill-informed advice that political entrepreneurs get is: “All political parties are corrupt; you should contest independently.” The people giving such advice do not understand the nature of Indian elections. The electorate in India votes primarily for the party and factors like caste or religion play a major role in the voting decision. The abilities/qualities/qualifications of a candidate matter little. Hence a political entrepreneur needs to choose a political party in order to have a realistic chance at winning because only if the political entrepreneur wins, will he/she have a shot at making a difference. Contesting an election is very expensive and contesting to prove a point is not a luxury that the political entrepreneur can afford. He/She has one shot, and they need to make that count. Hence, the very act of our society of not supporting a qualified political entrepreneur vis-a-vis others, with all their shortcomings, is in itself a political act aimed at perpetuating kakistocracy. Yet these very people, especially the erudite elites, would like to think of themselves as non-political.

The struggles of the political entrepreneur do not end there. Within the political fraternity itself, the self-made, skilled, honest, and hard-working political entrepreneur who has left a well-paying job to serve pro-bono, is deemed a perpetual outsider and is given the tag “non-political” by so-called “political” folks. Most such political entrepreneurs are relegated to backroom chores like election management or becoming OSDs to people with real power. The road to political success for so-called political outsiders (read political entrepreneurs) is long and winding and is fraught with uncertainty. The glass ceilings are high, especially the financial one, with the rite of passage from being non-political to political, being elections and contesting elections becoming increasingly costly in our democracy.

This leads to a catch-22 situation for the political entrepreneur. Without support from friends and family, the entrepreneur is reduced to positions wherein at best he/she is a support system to the person with the real power and at worst the political entrepreneur succumbs to the same vices which they sought to change, in their quest for power.

Till we as a society learn to celebrate our political entrepreneurs as much as we celebrate our business entrepreneurs or our social entrepreneurs, till we see put the abilities of the person first and his politics second and till we are willing to invest in political causes as much as we do in social ones, am afraid we are doomed to a state of kakistocracy where the present crop of so-called political folks will continue to govern (or misgovern) us, the best or worst they can.

Also Read: A wishlist for PM Narendra Modi's Cabinet reshuffle


Shashank Shekhar Shukla

The writer is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and is pursuing his PhD. Economics from IIM Lucknow.

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