Columns, Politics, Writing

Politics as business

What does a politician wake up at night worrying about? Is he likely to be agonising about bettering the lot of the marginal farmer or going over the draft legislation of some new policy in his mind? Or is he likelier to be worried sick about the turnout at a rival’s rally, or counting his supporters in his bid to unseat the incumbent or figuring out the right amount for a bribe on a big new project? In popular imagination, and in a vast majority of cases rightly so, a politician would be worrying about himself above all and would do anything in his means to further his own power and finances.

What would a business tycoon be up at night worrying about? A shortfall in his annual numbers, the cosying up of a politician with a business rival, a possible drop in his share price, a troublesome employee? If you think carefully about it, there isn’t much difference in what creates anxieties for both groups.

The businessman or corporate leader too does not worry about anything larger than his own immediate world. He is interested in more money and more power and is willing to do what it takes to get what he wants. The law is observed, more in letter than in spirit, and it is common for most business leaders to put their hands in their pockets and whistle tunelessly while the law is being tiptoed around.

Differences exist; few businessmen indulge in the routine venality that their political counterparts indulge in. No criminals run organisations of any repute, at least few who have been convicted of any wrongdoing. But in its essential character, business and politics are today concerned largely about themselves and not about anything external.

Interestingly, we see something grossly wrong with the state of politics and nothing seriously amiss with how business is run. For business is meant to operate in an amoral compartmentalised way. We do not have any higher expectations of business; by doing what it is expected to do which is to make more money for itself, business is seen to serve a social end.

The interests of business and the businessman are perfectly aligned; each gains along with the other. In doing so, business is able to get by without showing any great sense of responsibility towards anything larger.

Union Carbide may be an extreme example but it is by no means atypical of the response that any business would have to questions of greater social accountability.

For instance, would a potato chips company feel responsible for the plastic that gets piled up in the most pristine of tourist spots? Try going up to Rohtang Pass and you will see the entire road lined with discarded packets of chips. A small example of corporate indifference. More tellingly, most of us would not even expect the company to do anything about this. In the code that governs business, everything is seen transactionally. We pay for the chips, we get a packet, the transaction ends.

Politics carries the burden of higher expectations. National leaders are meant to feel responsibility to things other than themselves. We have been spoilt by the grace and nobility of our founding fathers for whom politics was a vehicle for larger change and who stood for something they believed in.

The truth is that politics has now become a business. It is no longer rooted in the altruism of its early days, it now operates in the marketplace. Personal gain is legitimate; and winning elections a means to realising one’s personal ambitions. Relationships are transactional and reciprocity is the order of the day. Politics is a career and not a calling. Deals need to be made, brands need to be built, mergers and acquisitions need to be managed.

It is no accident that business and politics understand each other so perfectly; they are today founded on similar principles. It is because we have trained to expect different behaviour from the two that we do not see the startling similarities that they share.

The other trouble with politics is that unlike business, this is a market without regulations. For the regulators are themselves the players. The inmates run the asylum and hence the sense of anarchy. But for that difference, politics is business wearing khadi. If we can grant business its amorality, why not politics?