Technician as PM

Sanjay Kapoor

Who wants to be a politician these days? Surely, many in India would want to be a politician, while few will be interested in the cash-strapped economies of Europe where problems have become so insurmountable that professional politicians have gone out of favour. It is the bankers or “technicians”, as they are called, who are now running these economies. 

For eight years now, India has had a prime minister in Manmohan Singh who would fall in the category of a “technician”.  An economist, he first stepped in as finance minister when the economy was in dire straits in 1991. Later, in 2004, he headed the UPA coalition government. Although Singh has not won a parliamentary election till date, he had a dream run as a PM — only the second after Jawaharlal Nehru to get re-elected for a second term. 

It would be interesting to ponder, what was his motivation to become the PM. Was it his desire to fix India’s economy at the time of crisis and provide better governance to the country? Or, was it as mundane as doing another job after reaching the age of superannuation in the government? 

Normally those who belong to academia and other professions do not aspire for political jobs. Less so in democracies where one needs to get elected to get into the council of ministers. Usually, fighting elections is so expensive and difficult that people of Singh’s ilk keep their ambitions well-concealed. To his credit, he tried to contest a parliamentary election from South Delhi on a Congress ticket, but came to grief at the hands of a BJP old-timer. However, Singh has defied all conventional reasons in the way he has been propelled in to one important political job after another. Worse, his continuance for so many years has reinforced a view fashionable among those who attack the political class — that this country can do without the politicians. 

Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption contributed to feeding the stereotype about a venal politician. Drawing support from the urban middle class and corporate/media houses, Hazare and his voluble group of retired bureaucrats and NGO activists even trashed Parliament and other democratic institutions. Did they enjoy support from the majority of India that lives in villages? It is not known, but their failed campaign in UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand, loaded in support of the BJP, was decisively rejected by the masses, and the assembly election process did not show any disenchantment with either politicians or the method of electing their representatives. On the contrary, there were big turnouts in every election. 

People still love the politicos, even if they are making money. Without them, many feel, they would not get any relief from an oppressive, corrupt and Kafkaesque bureaucracy and judiciary. 

A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), US, indicates that those who win elections in India show an average asset growth of a high 208 per cent. The accretion in wealth is far more when an elected representative becomes a minister. A person who loses in an election suffers in comparison. Evidently, there is a direct correlation between legislators and parliamentarians coming to riches with gaining power. 

A similar correlation is non-existent in the UK and more or less in the US. In India, the report suggests that these politicians make money from some of their “unobserved skills, resources or inside information that politicians may have access to which they extract to the maximum”. And there are other ways too to make money — like commissions from deals and taking cash for questions or votes in Parliament. 

Despite this low level of morality, Indian voters feel more comfortable dealing with politicians. They know that schemes like the rural employment guarantee scheme or loan waiver for farmers would not have come their way if the government had been run by bureaucrats or economists. The colossal stimulus that helped India survive the 2008 slowdown would never have been even conceived. On the contrary, economists would have brought in austerity measures to ensure that the fiscal deficit was contained even if it meant heaping burdens and misery on ordinary people.  

The NBER study does not show who gets re-elected: people who make a lot of money or those who do not. If my experience as a professional journalist is anything to go by, then those who are very rich find it easy to get re-elected against those who make less money. A look at Parliament and the assemblies would bear testimony to this assertion. Although this conclusion is fraught with competing inferences, the truth is that people do not mind re-electing leaders who are sensitive to their needs and also deliver on their promises. They run scared from those who fiddle around with macroeconomic variables to please the auditors of big banks or the International Monetary Fund. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012

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