Is politics a full time profession?

The most often heard praise of a popular and successful politician is that he or she is very accessible. Candidates campaigning for elected office often promise to have their doors open might and day for their voters, irrespective of who the latter vote for. Some of this exaggeration, but a great deal is true as well. The flip side of the coin of course is that a representative who is always available and accessible will also be doing precious little to advance the real interests of the constituents, such as procuring development grants, processing welfare schemes, highlighting issues of public concern or persuing them in appropriate fora like government agencies and courts of law.

This may be particularly true about my state of UP or perhaps even Bihar but I am convinced that in some measure it is the norm everywhere in the country. The larger issues are taken for granted and quickly forgotten e.g. telecom connectivity, major roads, agricultural schemes, grants for improvement of urban facilities, etc. What is not so easily forgotten is a job for some one in the family, a hand pump at the doorstep of a voter, timely intervention to get someone released from police custody, getting a transfer done or having it reversed, etc. There is also a refrain of the need (or expediency) of remaining physically close to the constituency. That might be feasible and desirable for MLAs but may well be unreasonable for a MP who takes his or her parliamentary duties seriously and wants to persue a hands-on legislative career. There are 6 months of sittings of the House and many more Committee meetings and other related engagements during the inter-session period. As a public figure, particularly if one is articulate, there are planned and unplanned media engagements and talks to be given. All this makes absence from the constituency unavoidable and at times even imperative.

But there is another more directly connected aspect. Most new MPs know very few people outside their constituencies. In order to get to know business persons and industrialists who can give jobs to their constituents, or doctors who can attend to their ailments in busy hospitals, or other public figures and civil servants who can oblige with transfer request, or even school administrators and principals who can accommodate admission requests, needs a lot of time and effort. Besides, just a nodding acquaintance would be inadequate. Relations have to be of a certain level of intimacy to be useful for favours. That also means a degree of reciprocity, usually in anticipation. The doctor you help will in turn help you, or else there can be many rules to quote. A police official you have been good to will go out of his way to be understanding'.

In may own case, being a Supreme Court lawyer, the demands of the profession can at times be strenuous. You cannot just turn up in Court one day and mesmerize the Judges. Effective advocacy requires knowledge of law but also of the behaviour of judges and other lawyers, particularly your adversaries. Of course a lawyer's practice can be very lucrative for the professional and equally back-breaking for the client. Since my constituency, Farrukhabad, has a high incidence of criminal cases, many finally end up in the Supreme Court. Some are people who are (or appear to be) innocent, helpless, poor agrarians, trapped in fictitious accounts believed by trial Courts. Other are patently guilty of criminal acts (such as murder) but with peculiar justification of their conduct that only a person who knows the reality of life in UP would understand. Then there are ones who cannot justify their behaviour (kidnapping for ransom) even with a loose moral standard of accountability. In such cases it is best to behave like a British barrister and ask questions only on need basis.

The person who fully appreciates the need for me to be absent from the constituencies for long periods is the one whose appeal is before the Supreme Court. Usually lawyers will not spare even their parents when it comes to billing for cases. But I learnt very early that foregoing legal fees in constituency cases can get greater rewards in due course. But to be a credible professional you have to earn fees and reputation in paid cases.

One may look at it another way. The money earned from legal practice comes handy. It also helps me answer questions like the one a very dear friend whom I met after thirty years asked me “ What do you politicians do most of the time? How do you earn a living? The truth is that some politicians do try to earn by working, but other politicians then dismiss them as being half hearted about politics. If there is a professional discipline and protocol to adhere to, how do you make it to the unending series of rallies, dharnas, organizational meetings, delegation visits to sites of accidents and violent clashes? There are ofcourse politicians who earn elsewhere but like to pass it off as earnings from professional work. It is easy to accuse them of hypocrisy and even impropriety but one must not target that politics needs a lot of money. Even if in the present moral context one accepts that money from politics, for political parties as well as individuals, will have to come from known or unknown sources, these still remains the matter of an individual financing his or her personal life - a house, car or cars, education for children, a holiday once in a while, medical care, a little saving for a rainy day etc. Today the brightest young minds in India can look to a comfortable existence in the corporate sector. In the big multinationals and software sector young near millionaires are being produced almost on an assembly line. Opportunities in private business have opened up fast tracks of social mobility. Think of my profession “ the best full time lawyers can charge between 1 lac to 3 lacs a day for quality of service hardly commensurate with the cost.

It is time that we took a fresh look at our attitude towards professionals in politics and move away from the inevitability of professional politicians. Politics does not need to be a full time occupation. Politicians should not be forced to think of it in that manner. If we can ensure that in some degree we may get better politicians and indeed better politics “ two things that the country needs desperately.

Salman Khurshid