It used to be—or so popular perception went—that anyone who wanted to be a politician could be a politician. Yet, that’s not the case, said a very senior government functionary I met some time back. This person spends enough time with politicians (in power or out of it), is a keen watcher of trends, and has come up with a theory on just what makes a politician. There are three skills (or factors) that contribute to an individual’s ability to be a successful politician, said this person who didn’t want to be named. The first is possessing a mass base. The second is having some expertise in a key area (like, say, finance or trade or environment) that others do not. And the third is the ability to wheel and deal and generally be a good fixer. A lucky few have all three, but most have one or two (or are working towards having one or two).
Even a casual study of politics over the past five years shows that this theory is increasingly becoming true. We can all name people who have positioned themselves, either by virtue of their background or interest, as specialists in certain areas, and landed top or second-level jobs in relevant ministries. This writer isn’t exactly sure how a mass base can be acquired, and judging from their missteps, nor are many politicians. As for fixing, it can never go out of fashion.
Thus, though at one level Indian politics hasn’t changed at all, at another level, it has, and radically. So, within the larger and oft-stated goal of serving the nation and its people, politicians can now do things that will help them rise in their careers, and not all these things involve cosying up to the party’s leadership.
This bit of career smarts shouldn’t surprise us because politicians have always been smart when it comes to their careers, as Govindraj Ethiraj, editorial head of Bloomberg UTV, told me this week.
We met casually—I say this because I don’t want either him or me to be besieged by SMSes asking whether we are joining the other’s paper or channel—and were talking about an individual both of us knew who had taken up a high-ranking job in a company, only to be completely sidelined. We decided that rather than waste his time and ruin his career, the said individual would be better off working for lower pay and a lesser designation in some other place—and actually do something. It’s impressive how politicians are willing to do this, or wait for long periods of time to revive their careers, said Ethiraj.
That’s true. A politician who ends up on the losing side has to make sure he remains relevant, within his party, and in the public domain, so that his career can take off when his party comes back to power.
The soonest that happens (typically) is after five years.
Interestingly, this time-frame figures in one of the most common questions in campus interviews.
“Where do you see yourself after five years?” asks the interviewer.
“In the corner office,” answers the cocky young MBA.
It almost never happens.