Shashi Tharoor on Why India Needs More Professionals in Politics

Dear professional Indians, when you think about the future of India, think also of getting involved in politics.

5 min read
Shashi Tharoor on Why India Needs More Professionals in  Politics

Before I entered politics myself, one of my more frequent laments had been about the abdication by the Indian educated professional classes of our political responsibility for our own destiny. The decision by the Congress Party to entrust me with the setting up of a Professionals’ Congress, to involve such people in our party, confronts that problem head-on.

My generation grew up in an India where a vast gulf separated those who went into the professions or the civil services, and those who entered politics.

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story:

The latter, at the risk of simplifying things a bit, were either at the very top or the very bottom: Either maharajahs or big zamindars with a feudal hold on the allegiances of the voters in their districts, or semi-literate “lumpens” with little to lose who got into politics as their only means of self-advancement. If you belonged to neither category, you studied hard, took your exams, and made a success of your life on merit – and you steered clear of politics as an activity for those “other people”.

  • In India, like in most western democracies, politics should be a middle-class pursuit
  • India’s educated tax-paying professionals are acutely aware of some of the country’s most pressing needs, such as the need for sound and stable governance
  • In professionals joining politics lies the democracy’s salvation

The Middle-Class Should Set Political Agenda

But the problem with that approach was that it left out of Indian politics the very group of people that are the mainstay of politics in other democracies. Around the world, the educated taxpaying professional classes are normally the ones who bring values and convictions to a country’s politics, and who have the most direct stake in questions of what a government can and cannot do. Across Europe, for instance, it’s people from the middle-class who set the political agenda: They make up the bulk of the activists, voters and candidates for political office. In most Western democracies, politics is essentially a middle-class pursuit.

India has a highly competitive society where the salaried professional class rarely enjoys the luxury of being able to take the kind of risks that a political life implies. Our middle-class has neither the time for activism (they’re too busy doing professional jobs to make ends meet) nor the money or the votes to count in politics. The money flows at the top, and the votes, in our stratified society, lie at the bottom, where the numbers are.

So members of the educated taxpaying professional class abstain from the process, and all too often look at it with contempt. They don’t show up to vote in large numbers; whereas the poor in India do vote, the middle-class disempowers itself by its disdain.


India Needs Professionals in Politics

Yet it is this section of society that is also acutely aware of some of India’s most pressing needs, such as the need for sound and stable governance. They are engaged with an idea of India that is growth-driven and not merely by the divisive politics of caste and community. They demand a sustained increase in the quality of public services paid for by their taxes. Far from the shrill cries of Hindutva and the gau rakshaks, their priorities are investments in education, healthcare and urban development.

Can India afford the continued “secession of the professionals” from our politics? No – and it probably won’t, as the country’s economic transformation brings more and more people into the middle and professional classes, which will one day reach the point where its numbers will indeed begin to matter in elections. Why shouldn’t Indian politics benefit from a healthy infusion of professionals?

It’s striking that while 12 of the last 16 American Presidential nominees of the two major US political parties were graduates of either Harvard or Yale, the products of our best educational institutions rarely venture into politics.

In America, the commentator Michael Medved wrote 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 middle-class, 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.

This is changing, as is the public’s expectations of what a politician should be like. An initiative like the Professionals’ Congress will ensure that more professionals with skills and qualifications, but no political background, come into politics.

In that, eventually, will lie our democracy’s salvation.

Dear Professionals, Get Involved in Politics

So my message to professional Indians who actually have principles and ideals is this: When you think about the future of India, think also of getting involved in politics. The nation needs you.

The Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking of South Africa, once said he hoped his country would get leaders the people could look up to, “not people we have to keep finding excuses for.”

If well-educated, middle-class Indians – the kind of people who are the mainstay of our professions – want a return to the era when our country’s political leadership was full of people whom the nation admired, they will have to enter the fray themselves. Otherwise, all too often, we will have to pay allegiance to people we need to find excuses for.

“The Congress Party,” Rahul Gandhi said in a recent interview, “is a consensus-making structure that allows conversations to thrive by bringing in a large number of voices. It is designed for listening. It is perhaps the only party that has changed itself continually according to the needs of the times.”

It is this attitude that signals the transformation I am privileged to be leading today. My own innings in politics is prefixed by one of the stories of the Indian dream that is common to probably every professional in India. It begins with a child born into a middle-class family, benefiting from the power of education, working hard to enter one of India’s many reputed colleges, graduating from one of the well-known international institutions, and relying on our traditional values of hard work and integrity to build a successful career.


My own life story gives me the faith that the Congress understands the needs of growing middle and professional classes, has the right ideals, and is the best placed to uphold the values of hard work and acceptance of difference that underpin the aspirations of the middle class for itself and for the Idea of India in the 21st century.

Many Indians shy away from politics as a profession because of the belief that the scope for professionals is limited. The creation of the Professionals’ Congress shows that that is changing. My hope is therefore that, by the 2020s, there will be many more educated, professional middle-class Indians in politics – and that they will do better than I have managed to do so far!

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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