Do we get the politicians we deserve?

on Sunday, June 22, 2008

One of the striking details about the now-certain nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States is that he is the 10th nominee of the two major parties (Republicans and Democrats) in the past twenty years to have graduated from either Harvard or Yale. That statistic, remarkable in itself, strikes one as all the more astonishing when you realize that in these last 20 years the two parties between them have in fact only had 12 nominees altogether. In other words, only two major candidates in all this time did not attend one of America’s top two universities — and this in a country whose higher education system, with over a thousand top-class universities and colleges to choose from, is second to none.
The evidence is startling: look at the winners of the Presidency in the last two decades, and every single one of them (George H W Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, George W Bush in 2000 and 2004) has had a degree from Yale. (As the father of twin boys whose birthday happens to be today, i suppose i should admit they both went to Yale too, but their politics are closer to that of Barack Obama, even if he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991). There are also Yalies amongst the defeated candidates — Bush senior in 1992, John Kerry in 2004 — and, for that matter, Harvard men as well (Michael Dukakis in 1988, Al Gore in 2000). The current President, George W Bush, actually has degrees from both these pillars of the Ivy League, his credentials embracing both Yale University and the Harvard Business School.
This year, Harvard’s Obama will square off against John McCain, whose alma mater is the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Many of us expected his likely opponent to have been another Harvard man, Mitt Romney, who has degrees from both the law and business schools; but then we also expected Romney was more likely to be facing Hillary Clinton, who — you guessed it — graduated from Yale Law School. But even without the pair of them, it is extraordinary indeed that, as the columnist Michael Medved recently pointed out, Yale and Harvard degree-holders make up “less than two-tenths of 1% of the national population, but (have won) more than 83% of recent presidential nominations”. Medved sees this development as evidence of a growing inclusiveness by those two institutions, which have drawn their students from a much wider talent pool than in the past. My own concern, as an Indian, is somewhat different: how is it that America elects its President from amongst the products of that country’s finest educational institutions, whereas we in India are saddled with politicians of, to put it politely, considerably lower educational attainment?
Without wishing to disparage in any way the fine men and women of our current Cabinet — who include degree holders from Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and even two from St Stephen’s College — it is a sad fact that in general, the products of India’s better colleges and universities do not go into politics. In America, a Michael Medved can write that the skills and determination required to get into a Harvard or Yale are in themselves indicators of suitability for high office — “the driven, ferociously focused kids willing to expend the energy and make the sacrifices to conquer our most exclusive universities are among those most likely to enjoy similar success in the even more fiercely fought free-for-all of presidential politics.” In India, the kids who “conquer our most exclusive universities” would for the most part consider it beneath themselves to step into the muck and mire of our country’s politics. The attitude of most Indians is that if you’re smart enough to get into a good university, you can make something better of your life in a “real” profession. Politics, it is generally muttered amongst the middleclass, is for those who aren’t able to do anything else. And the skills required to thrive in the world of Indian politics have nothing to do with the talents honed by a first-class education.
As a Stephanian myself, i remember the ethos of the institution being one of diligent preparation for the IAS and IFS examinations as the summum bonum of career aspiration for anyone with the brains to pass those gruelling civil service examinations. And yet i have never forgotten a speech delivered at a college dinner in my final year, 1974-75, by a distinguished Stephanian of royal descent, an additional secretary to the Government of India and a civil servant known to be well-connected to the ruling family. He surveyed us, 17- to 22-year-olds with bright eyes and scrubbed faces, and chose to express a candour none of us was accustomed to from Indian officialdom. “I look at you all,” he said bluntly, “the best and the brightest of our fair land, smart, honest and able, and my heart sinks. Because i know that most of you will do what i did and take the civil service examinations, little realising that if you succeed, your fate will be to take orders from the dregs of our society — the politicians.” He could see the shock on the faces of his audience as he went on: “Don’t make the mistake i did. Do something else with your lives.”
The speaker was Natwar Singh, and he undid his own “mistake” by resigning from the government before he could attain the foreign secretaryship that most of his peers considered inevitable, and entered politics instead, rising to the foreign ministership. Another Stephanian diplomat, Mani Shankar Aiyar, followed his example; he serves in the Cabinet alongside a Stephanian who eschewed the services for the law, Kapil Sibal. But they are very much the exception to the norm. Isn’t it time more well-educated Indians stepped into the political fray, as India seeks to carve out a place for itself in the 21st century world? And if more of them don’t, don’t we only have ourselves to blame if we get the politicians we deserve?

-SHASHI THAROOR

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