Business Today

The MBA heft in polity

As the growing band of politicians with business degrees swells, the big question is: can B-schools contribute to the quality of governance in India?

Puja Mehra        Print Edition: October 3, 2010

A disgraced cricketer declared unfit to manage Team India, a retired Bollywood actor who found little time for his constituency or Parliament, or goons out of jail on bail - all make for daily fare in Parliament. Politics in India has become the refuge of the mediocre, especially in the last two decades of tectonic economic change.

The talent crunch in the political class is seen as the single-largest spoiler in a highly aspirational India, the missing glue that could have held together better the goals of high growth and an equitable spread of wealth. Increasingly, though, a new class of politician is emerging from the ranks - the professionally qualified manager seeking his or her destiny in the rough and tumble of politics.

At least 27 citizens holding an MBA or Master of Business Administration degree have been voted to the 15th Lok Sabha, a sea change from earlier elected houses. BT met some of them - from established political families to debutant politicians - to understand whether B-schools can contribute to, and indeed make a change in the quality of the political class.

Most are confident that top B-schools such as the Indian Institutes of Management can make politics an appealing career option for bright youngsters. If the pay package is competitive and the workplace professional, a career in politics promises greater job satisfaction over selling soaps any day, says Deepinder Hooda, a graduate of the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University.

Among politicians with MBA degrees are Sachin Pilot, 33, Congress MP from Ajmer (Wharton); Ijyaraj Singh, 45, Congress MP from Kota (Columbia); Dushyant Singh, 37, BJP MP from Jhalawar-Baran (Johnson and Wales University, Providence, Rhode Island, and IHTTI School of Hotel Management, Neuchatel, Switzerland); Dinesh Trivedi, 60, Trinamool Congress MP from Barrackpur (University of Texas); and Mukul Balkrishna Wasnik, 51, Congress MP from Ramtek and Minister of State for Social Justice (Depar tment of Business Management, Nagpur University).

Jyotiraditya Scindia, 39, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, in the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, is a prime example of how an MBA degree has helped a politician deliver. The Stanford University MBA (Class of 2001), as Minister of State for Information Technology and Posts in the UPA-I government, was the architect of the award-winning Project Arrow that sought to modernise the Department of Posts. He roped in management consultancy McKinsey & Co. and ad firm Ogilvy & Mather for a corporate-like overhaul and branding of India Post.

Almost immediately, key changes were introduced in the way post offices sort mail, packages and money orders. Back-end operations were integrated and performance reviews conducted through video conferences. Motivation levels of the dakias (postmen) jumped when their bag and cycle repair allowances were increased after decades and schooling benefits for children available to government employees were extended to them. The result has been speedier deliveries, a better customer experience, and fewer failed deliveries (down to decimal figures) in the 500 post offices covered in the first phase of the project. A replica of Project Arrow is being implemented in South Africa under the same name.

As the junior minister in charge of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Scindia is working on delivering the much-awaited government portals aimed at reducing corruption. These portals will help in starting, running and closing businesses without a human interface at local, state or Central government agencies by obtaining clearances (fire, labour, value-added tax, toll certifications, among several others) through simplified online forms.

Precision delivery is something that Scindia shares with the other B-school minister in the UPA-II government: 65-year-old P. Chidambaram. The Union Home Minister, who made it big with the "dream budgets" he presented as the United Front government's finance minister in the 1990s, is a top lawyer and also an MBA from the Harvard Business School (Class of 1968). He has been criticised for being a micro-manager but people who have worked with him vouch for his ability to focus on the task at hand.

Right from his first day in the Ministry of Finance, in May 2004, as finance minister in UPA-I, "he was clear that this government's big plans for social spending-powered inclusive growth automatically defined the agenda for his ministry: raising tax collections," recalls a bureaucrat who worked with Chidambaram. Collections doubled in the first three years of his stint as finance minister in UPA-I. In his current assignment, which he accepted in December 2008 following 26/11, Chidambaram has earned the distinction of being the only minister the Opposition lauds.

"Few people know he is the biggest reformer," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said in praise of Chidambaram in 2006. "As the commerce and industry minister, when we were undertaking economic reforms in the 1990s, he offered to (and went on to) shrink his ministry's and his own clout by a third." It's not that the grass-roots politicians are not sharp, but, as Prem Das Rai, a first-time Member of Parliament and sole representative of the Sikkim Democratic Front, points out, most are handicapped by the "missing ability to put in place frameworks that the bureaucracy (executing class) can use to convert goals into effective policy".

He may not be the Lok Sabha's poster boy but 15 months into the term, Rai, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad (Class of 1976) and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, has already taken a crash course in Constitution Law from his lawyer friends, formed alumni networks of IIT Kanpur and IIM-A for consultations, and hired a research team to assist him. He advocates training processes and orientation for politicians based on the needs of the country.

There is the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore, and other institutes such as Gurgaon-based Management Development Institute that offer full-time resident programmes in Public Administration but mostly attract aspiring bureaucrats. However, a programme in public policy and management at IIM Ahmedabad has been scrapped due to inadequate demand from policymakers and government officials.

Nishikant Dubey, first-time MP from Godda, Jharkhand, agrees with Rai's assertion that "the real government is the bureaucracy (and) an understanding of its functioning is important for politicians". The graduate from Delhi university's Faculty of Management Studies (Class of 1994) made his way into politics after 15 years in corporate climes - he was a director at the Essar Group before he got a ticket for contesting the 2009 election from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Few parliamentarians, he says, truly have a grip on significant pieces of legislation.

Hooda, who as an engineer worked at Infosys Technologies and Sabre Holdings, has retained his B-school trait of focusing on projects rather than processes, which is contrary to the norm in government of sticking to laid-down procedures even if it means delaying a project. "You can't just set up a desk for making demands in Parliament," he says.

His vision for his constituency, Rohtak, is to make it a modern-day Taxila, the ancient Indian city that was a centre of learning. Working with various ministries, he has managed to bring to Rohtak branches of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and IIM plus a Haryana government film institute bigger than the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, a Footwear Design and Development Institute, an Institute of Hotel Management promoted by the Union Ministry of Culture and Tourism, a school for fashion designing and a medical college.

He has also brought together Kelly School, his alma mater, and IIM Rohtak in a collaboration on the lines of the one between the Harvard Business School and IIM-A. "New Delhi is neutral as it doesn't go out of its way to push states nor would it stymie their efforts," Hooda says. "Anybody who is impatient as I am will succeed with them (Central government)."

Of course, a B-school degree is not a magic wand that can set right the political system. Dubey, for instance, can't think of even one instance so far when his MBA training has helped his political career. His home advantage, caste equations and party base bagged him the votes, he says, and he relies on his understanding of the local affairs to get New Delhi to devote more funds and attention to his Naxalinfested constituency.

The MBA politician has clearly arrived, even otherwise, as Congress Party MP Rahul Gandhi's back-room team showed in the 2009 elections. The head of Team Gandhi was Wharton product Kanishka Singh, who quit Wall Street investment bank Lazard to plunge into politics. With the latest generous hike in salaries for MPs, then, politics may just have become the latest career choice for the country's MBAs.

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