Caveat: This is a long-ish post. Recommend that you print it.
Many (all?) of us blame venal and mendacious politicians for India’s problems. Atanu’s sentiments in his series of posts on Lee Kuan Yew, that “when it comes to greed Indian politicians are a class apart” are echoed in any debate/ discussion about India’s problems.
I agree that many of India’s politicians are crooked and inept. However, just blaming them is simplistic. Or rather, it’s not the whole story. In my opinion, mendacious politicians are a proximate issue. It would be far more useful to figure out why India is saddled with such terrible politicians? After all, there’s no evidence that Indians are any more more crooked or inept than any other nation or race on earth. Then, how does one explain the terrible politicians?
T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan in a wonderful article in The Business Standard, titled The Rules Of The Empty Game, sums it up marvelously.
I’ve excerpted the rules below, but I’d encourage all of you to read the full piece — brilliant stuff.
Like academics and pickpockets, politicians too have rules which they can break only at great risk
Operation Duryodhana, in which some clever journalists secretly filmed as many as 11 MPs receiving money in return for asking questions in Parliament, has surprised only the naïve. This is because if you define honesty in the conventional, unqualified and non-contextual way, an honest politician is an oxymoron.
Clearly, there is something about the profession that induces even otherwise decent fellows to behave caddishly. It is the way the game is played. (emphasis mine) It is important to understand this because all callings have their own implicit rules which are very different from the formal explicit ones. If you want to get anywhere in your chosen profession, you simply have to observe these implicit rules.
Since this is as true of academics as it is of pickpockets, it is more useful to examine the rules, rather than the persons who play the game. (emphasis mine)
Rule No 1 is that only winning matters because the winner takes all. This zero-sum game characteristic of politics has two consequences.
First, the squeamish stay away. Second, the rules are made by those who regard honesty like people usually regard exercise or prayer—something to be admired in others but never emulated.
Apropos rule #1, a question for readers of this blog: How many of your classmates/ friends, who had other career options, went into politics? I’d be surprised if the answer is more than zero for the vast majority of answers.
Rule No 2 is that your political worth is directly proportional to how much money you can bring to the table.
Rule No 3 is that no one but you will be responsible for your day-to-day expenses.
Rule No 4 is that you must recoup your election expenses in the first two years and devote the next three years to generating the margin money for the next election.
Rule No 5 comes out of Rule No 2: the political parties need you to bring in more than money if they are to bank on you.
Rule No 6 is “No squealing”. If you rat on someone, you may be ratted on next. And since you need the money, it is not in your interest to rat. So there is no internal pressure to remain honest.
Rule No 7 is that in the current framework each MP must spend more than the other. This comes out of a Prisoners’ Dilemma sort of situation where, although each MP is best off spending as little as possible, in reality none of them can.
This is because whenever one MP realises that the other is not spending, he can achieve a higher individual payoff by spending more, and thereby hoping to extend his reach amongst potential voters. Given that each MP stands to gain by spending more if the other does not spend, what ends up happening is that they all spend as much as they can.
In other words, TCA says that wishful thinking of the Palkhivala school, in looking for politicians of vision (sic) is not realistic. Nor, for that matter, are rants that blame everything on venal politicians.
I’ve long averred that it’s unrealistic to expect a fighter to adhere to the Marquess of Queensberry rules, when all his opponents are exponents of no-holds-barred fighting. With our current system, the search for honest politicians is a chimera. The solution lies in reforming the rules of the political game.
While I’d love to see idealists like Paritrana succeed without soiling their hands, I’m a tad skeptical. Perhaps they’ll prove me wrong.