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A career lesson

Like any other career, politics can be as noble or dirty as its practitioners make it

A career lesson

Ask any Indian schoolboy what he wants to be when he grows up and he will chant a long litany of his would-be professions - engineer, airline pilot, IAS officer, IT professional and so on but never, as far as I can recall, politician. Politics is taboo and never enters his consciousness either because he has been motivated against it or he considers it beneath him and not quite respectable.

It is actually as respectable as you can make it. Almost all other professionals pay obeisance to politicians, whether they are otherwise powerful businessmen like Mukesh Ambani or IAS officers of the highest grade. Yet the middle classes in India avoid them like the plague and look down on them, though they don't mind playing second fiddle to them, cursing them under their breath all the time.

This is not so in other countries, at least in the West where politics is a perfectly honourable profession. I once took a poll of fellow - students in the London School of Economics, which teaches not only economics but also politics, about their future career intentions. Most of them said they wanted to teach or join some kind of government service - this was just after the war when there was a Labour government in power and most students leaned to the left - but about a quarter said they wanted to go to politics. The salary of a Member of Parliament at the time was less than that of a college lecturer.

And, indeed, that is what they did. How they did it, I do not know, but many became ministers at the Centre, some ended as mayors and quite a few wound up as advisers at 10 Downing Street. As far as they were concerned, it was a satisfactory career, although not perhaps so in monetary terms. You are paid only when you are in office and are literally on the street, not out of it. But as one friend said, it was fun.

It is also the case in America. Bill Clinton and his ambitious wife had their eyes on the Presidency, not some business corporation, of the United States, nothing less and they made no bones about it. Bill did manage to reach the top spot, though his wife didn't. They never looked down on politics or politicians, for that is what they wanted to become.

Politics is about power and power, as Henry Kissinger once said is the ultimate aphrodisiac. In politics, if you are in power, you are always No.1. In other professions, you may be No.1 and running the biggest company this side of Suez, but you are never really No.1, for there is always some politician before whom you have to bend.

I was in the government for a while in the late seventies and have tasted power and savoured it at close quarters. On my very first day in the office, a joint secretary, who is quite a big shot in his own way, came running to tell me that he had five company managing directors waiting for him outside his room. They were actually pacing up and down the ministry's corridors - the so-called corridors of power - outside his office because the office did not have a big enough waiting room. I called them all in and gave them a cup of tea. When they departed, clutching their bulging briefcases, they must have been the happiest of businessmen in town.

Politics has a bad smell about it because it is such a disorganised profession. You do not know how to enter it and how to go up the ladder. Business was also once quite disorganised and chaotic an affair before bigger companies started organising it and bringing in some order. There were no business schools or MBAs before the war. Now everybody is an MBA.

I suggest we have MPAs - Masters in Political Administration for young men and women wanting to make politics a career, just as business is now a career. Politics should be better organised and so should be political parties. After all, when the chips are down, it is they who run the country. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops at their tables!

This column first appeared in November 2010.