Arriviste in a hurry

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 23 April 2010

Image Source -


This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on 23rd April 2010.





To break the rules,you must first know the rules.Google any close approximation of that phrase and you’ll find a million references. This sage advice has been around for thousands of years,a basic tenet of would-be revolutionaries and paradigm-changers in virtually every profession known to humankind. Whether you are an artist aiming to revolutionise art think Picasso — a writer challenging the rules of grammar,a CEO turning around a troubled company,or indeed a politician who wants to revamp the system,this is a universal principle any outsider would do well to internalise.

And yet,it was missing from the meteoric political career of Shashi Tharoor,who tried to position himself as a cutting-edge,game-changing,new-age Indian politician. Instead,before the meteor finally flared out with his resignation this week from the council of ministers,he repeatedly found himself portrayed as the hapless enfant terrible of Indian politics,or at least the Congress party. Many of his own colleagues viewed him as an arriviste,despite the fact that he brought years of international diplomatic experience to the table,not to mention great erudition and personal charm.

Does that mean Indian politics has no place for outsiders: mid-career lateral entrants who have earned a name for themselves in diverse fields? There are many examples of lateral transfer efforts that have failed,from the Mumbai banker who plunged into electoral politics last year — but lost — to the many movie stars,corporate czars and others who have flirted with politics with some success,only to either lose interest or fade away.

On the other hand,there are many examples of the opposite: outsiders who have survived or succeeded in politics,and some who even brought about radical changes. These include movie stars,lawyers,bureaucrats,editors and the like,with MGR,NTR,Kapil Sibal,Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie coming to mind. The most prominent of these is of course Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There are intriguing parallels between Dr Singh’s career trajectory and that of his derailed protégé Dr Tharoor,but also important differences. They both have academic heft,with doctorates from well-known foreign universities; both wrote influential papers and books; and both had distinguished careers in multilateral organisations.

That’s where the similarities end. Without going into their personal lives,which are as different as night and day,lessons can nevertheless be drawn from the very significant differences in their professional lives. The more morally inclined might compare Dr Singh’s exceptional probity in public life,for it is unimaginable that he would ever be enmeshed in anything quite like the IPL controversy. And perception is as important as reality. In his eloquent post-resignation mea innocentia in Parliament,Shashi Tharoor tacitly conceded being tripped up by the familiar Caesar’s-wife test,that is,the requirement to be above suspicion.

But that can’t be,and isn’t,the whole story. After all,politics is full of people who fail the Caesar’s-wife test (or,for the more Swadeshi inclined,the similar test involving Lord Rama and his wife Sita). The deeper point of this saga lies in the answer to two questions: are outsiders in politics held to higher standards? And,what might improve their chances of success?

First,it is indeed the case that outsiders are held to higher standards,as they should be. By definition,such people are “anti politicians” who have raised the public’s hope for better,cleaner politics. They represent the induction of proven talent,as opposed to the “usual suspects” of whom people are so cynical. It goes without saying that they are expected to be different and to be change agents.

As to what might improve their chances,let us revisit the ancient wisdom we started with: It’s even part of the Dalai Lama’s rules of living,though he slightly rearranges the words and emphasises the affirmative,“Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” To reiterate,this applies to outsiders in every profession. Let’s take an example from the corporate world,where the management of large global companies often involves the same kind of big budgets and internecine politicking that are commonplace in governments.

One of the biggest conundrums facing large multinational companies is the appointment of CEOs. Here is an extract from the bible of management science,The Harvard Business Review,of November 2007: “There is no more important decision a board can make than naming a CEO. Yet most companies pay scant attention to the issue of succession… The result? The hiring of an outsider who quickly gets mired in legacy and obstinacy,or an insider who knows the business but can’t lead. That’s why the best CEO should be both an insider and an outsider,says Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Bower. ‘The best leaders are people from inside the company who somehow have maintained enough detachment from the local traditions,ideologies,and shibboleths that they have retained the objectivity of an outsider,’ Bower writes.”

Substitute “company” with “party” and “CEO” with “minister” and that conclusion is just as apt. In fact,there are many concrete examples in politics worldwide. One of the best known “outsiders” in politics anywhere is Barack Obama. While his qualities as US president are open to debate,what is beyond question is that his breakthrough in healthcare reform represents a radical systemic change. What is less often recognised is that he was actually a ground-up insider,a party apparatchik who grew inside the system for years,before he became the great outsider. The same was the case with Ronald Reagan,another great “outsider” in American politics,though it is often forgotten that he transformed himself from B-movie star to politician for decades before becoming president.

And that is the crucial difference in outsiders who have succeeded in politics: acclimatisation. Shashi Tharoor spent decades outside India before being suddenly catapulted into the completely unfamiliar terrain of Indian politics. The Singhs,Sibals and MGRs first spent many years at the periphery or inside the system,retaining the outsider’s perspective of the change that was needed while gaining the insider’s instinct for the change that was possible.