A Contrarian View: Sympathy for the Politician !!!

Over the past few years, I’ve been binge watching on quite a few political dramas and movies in the languages I am comfortable with (English, Kannada and Hindi). Political stories are always an interest area for me in terms of reading or watching on different media, as I believe they bring out elements of the human character like nothing else. One common theme which has stood out across all these stories and media is the moral and emotional bankruptcy of most of the political class.

Which prompts me to ask the question; are politicians born that way, i.e is the aforementioned bankruptcy a prerequisite to the making of a politician or do they transform into such ? After all, politicians are not from Jupiter or Saturn (Mars and Venus have been taken up for effect by another earlier author). In politics, this question gets further complicated by the forces of nepotism. This blog is an attempt to take a view which is both uncommon and unconventional; i.e politicians behave the way to do because of all the compulsions which bear force on them. I definitely do not justify their actions but only make an attempt to paint another picture of them.

But first, let us paint a picture of the morally and emotional bankrupt politician . The default politician is male for the sake of simplicity, middle aged at around 50 years, has come into politicians after a successful career in another industry (real estate or an import-export business ? ) is extremely wealthy & connected and now in the serious pursuit of power and its accessories. He has studied upto an undergraduate level but is extremely intelligent and filled to the brim with common sense. Ideology is not absolutely necessary but a fitment into social, economic and class equations is desirable. The politician is always looking out for an angle which benefits himself (in either party or government activities) and doesn’t really care for the greater good. He is devoted to a political party as long as mutual interests are satisfied and has a clear market rate and quid pro quo requirements in case he needs to consider any of a range of anti-party activities (from simply resigning to pulling down the party from power). There is a high probability that he is an excellent communicator and often plays to the audience; appearances matter a lot to him. He might not necessarily have a great moral compass. This is a strange thing I have noticed in India; people are not unduly shocked on hearing about the sexual misadventures (and even crimes !) of their leaders. While a Bill Clinton almost got himself impeached for his oral activities in the Oval Office, ND Tiwari didnt quite face the same heat for the controversies surrounding him at a much advanced age.

It’s a tough ask to empathize with this caricature, but let me try. Below, I list the forces which act on a politician and veer him away from all his potential and good intentions.

  1. Politics is an all-in, high stakes career with its own evolved thumb rules over the years and seldom offers multiple chances or breathing space to un-ambitious, failed (or nowadays, even good intentioned) players. The barriers to entry are very high and any poltician who has taken the trouble to establish a footing without external help will potentially try to do everything he can to stay relevant.
  2. As much as politics is a money-making enterprise, it is also money-burning. I have heard anecdotes about the mind boggling amount of money it takes for a politician to maintain his coterie, an army for the violently inclined or even to welcome the steady stream of guests who keep visiting his office and residence throughout the day. While this expenditure needs to be sustained throughout the politician’s career, the opportunities to make money even in illicit ways are usually shorter windows (typically when the party and the individual are in power). Add to this another trend observed in professions like medicine, the law or chartered accountancy, where there is a long period of interning and grind before one begins to establish credibility and make money so the proportion of risk is higher.
  3. Politics is a whirlwind of negotiations, compromises and IOUs. This makes the profession highly transactional in nature and it is very easy to miss the big picture or initial focus of the individual. The politician needs to constantly evaluate his friends, enemies and neutral people as well as guage his strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Governance, which is a key role of the politician is another complicated topic for which the politician is not necessarily fully equipped or has ready training available. Here, he has to deal with the presence and influence of bureacracy, another animal in itself and worthy of its own blog. It was only after watching the popular British TV series, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister that I got a good appreciation of this crazy tango between the politician and the bureacrat. Even being an effective opposition is a serious responsibility of the politician and I believe there is no help provided in this area.
  5. The politician has very easy and often unregulated access to situations in which he can compromise his integrity, be it in terms of money, influence or flesh. It requires great character to withstand these situations and keep his bearing.
  6. A large proportion of the politician’s time is spent on planning and executing his election campaigns. Some election cycles leave me perplexed, the annual Mayor Elections in Bengaluru being one. In my opinion, much of the politician’s money and influence also gets expended in these mega events so election periods are totally non-productive

In the grand scheme of this circus, where is the time to do anything good and/or productive ? What can the politician change about himself and his profession to realize his original, noble intentions ? I would love to see someone capture a similar view about the bureacracy in India !

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