April 21, 2009

"Wanted: Entrepreneur Politicians" - by Sanjay Anandaram

As the cliché goes, the world’s largest exercise in democracy kicks off yet again this week in our country. Hope, hopelessness and cynicism are the constant emotions accompanying this exercise. The political class appears determined to demonstrate new lows in venality, criminalization, corruption and crassness. Competitive one-upmanship in making empty, patronizing, platitudinous, parochial, narrow and sanctimonious statements of intent is the order of the day. Civil society is battling away slowly and doggedly. But change is very frustratingly slow to come by thanks to the twin deadweights of our fossilized justice (viz. police, courts, laws and legal procedures) and administrative (eg. defence procurements to social project implementations to securing a driving license) systems.

Social and political change has always been brought about by visionary and charismatic leaders (Gandhi, for example) who could articulate that vision such that it mobilized vast numbers of people towards achieving seemingly impossible goals. Less daunting but nevertheless very impactful changes have been brought about by public minded and powerful people – think Jamshedji Tata (eg. IISc in Bangalore, the counry’s first labour association at Tata Steel in 1920 with collective bargaining, creation of the city of Jamshedpur). While it appears impossible that a Gandhi will emerge again anytime soon, it is possible that many first generation entrepreneurs like Jamshedji Tatas will emerge in the near future given the changing circumstances of India and the world around it.

First generation entrepreneurs are not businessmen in the traditional sense. As entrepreneurs, they’re driven by the desire to change a status quo, to upset the applecart as it were. The financial rewards are a derivative of the successful conversion of that desire into action. Businessmen are less concerned about changing the status quo (in many cases, preferring a status quo and the cosy crony capitalism that comes with it) than with making money. First generation entrepreneurs are not constrained by lack of resources but creatively leverage resources through their imagination, will power and obsessive passion to succeed. Subsequent generations do not have to grapple with this mismatch between aspirations and resources and then tend to focus more on managing the bottom lines than in participating in “risky” endeavours like engaging with the political class to effect social change.

If one looks at the political landscape today, one sees film-stars, criminals (both convicted and yet to be convicted), businessmen, people with sectarian, religious and regional interests, and some with genuine public minded agenda for change. There are no entrepreneurs yet in our system unlike in the US, the most powerful democracy. The reason for this is that there aren’t quite as many successful first generation entrepreneurs yet in our country and the few that fit the label have been wary of engaging with the system given their initial experience. India however has many political entrepreneurs but not enough entrepreneurs in politics!

The attributes one would look for in the political leadership today would encompass the following:
- an agenda for the country that will help it achieve its “tryst with destiny”
- an articulated time-bound set of actions towards fulfilling that agenda
- a qualified, passionate, hard-working, honest and experienced team
- confident yet humble
- decision making in the larger interests of the country, not hostage to narrow cynical agendas
- willing to engage with the world around them to actively promote the agenda
- develop partnerships and alliances in furtherance of this agenda
- a belief in meritocracy while providing opportunities for all
- fighting injustice through the creation of effective and efficient systems
- being transparent in all dealings
- in touch with ground realities and with the citizens

In short, an entrepreneurial mindset is required where personal ambition is subservient to the larger goal of building a successful company. Where competence is valued more than loyalty. This is an important point to keep in mind because “I want to be the Prime Minister” is like saying “I want to be the CEO” but both are rather different from saying “I want to be part of building a great country or company”.

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.