The tyranny of the idea of popular support

While it is true that their admission reflects dedication and hard work, it can’t be really said that it is solely their own doing.

Published: 17th November 2020 07:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th November 2020 06:50 PM   |  A+A-

Writing about admissions to prestigious colleges in the US, American political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J Sandel in his book The Tyranny of Merit elaborates: “Those with sparkling legitimate credentials ... consider that they got in on their own. While it is true that their admission reflects dedication and hard work, it can’t be really said that it is solely their own doing. What about their parents and teachers who helped them on their way? What about the good fortune to live in a society that cultivates and rewards the talents they happen to have?”

The narrative mentioned above has an echo in the case of rich and successful people in a liberal economy. The rich tend to believe that their success is due to their talents and merit, forgetting the fact that if there is no law and order and if there is no system of fair justice and other enabling factors in society, their merit and talent are of no consequence. The concept of merit also tends to inculcate a sense in the losers that they lost the game because they have no merit and that they should accept their situation.

The concept of ‘the tyranny of merit’ has a parallel in the idea of ‘popular support’ to our elected representatives. Once elected by popular vote, they tend to believe that they can do whatever they please, forgetting the fact that popular support to them is based on doing common good. We don’t know that all actions of a public representative have popular support.

We have no system of referendum and no way of knowing the minds of the people who are disorganised. We can’t deny the fact that people get elected to positions of power based on their good work and popularity. But all people who do good work and are popular do not get elected. More often, the elected candidate has access to the ticket-allocating high command of a political party and is super rich to buy a party ticket. 

The idea of popular support to a public representative for his whole term legitimises the actions of elected leaders, however bad they may be, and gives them a sense of froideur. As politics is an increasingly paying and prestigious profession that can control all other sectors of the economy, it is becoming an entrenched and closed system. People who are already there don’t want others to disturb their privileged positions.

We have the same people getting elected repeatedly, some of them six or seven times to the same position. If for any reason an MP/MLA who is in the good books of his party leadership gets defeated in a popular election, he gets nominated to the upper houses of legislatures and is elected by the use of party whip. If an elected representative dies, it has become customary to offer the seat vacated to the spouse or children of the deceased leader.

We now have dynasties from the top to bottom of the political pyramid. In the Congress, we have Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. There are the Abdullahs and Muftis in J&K, Lalu and Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar, the dynasty of M Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and so on. We can see dynastic tendencies at all levels of the political spectrum. The closed system makes it very difficult for a new aspirant to gain entry into the political arena. One can say that a person can contest an election as an independent.

When the election campaign runs into a few crore rupees and requires huge organisational manpower, an ordinary person with limited means contesting an election against a candidate sponsored by a political party with huge resources will face an uphill battle.

Vivian Hunt, a senior partner at McKinsey, in a recent article in Financial Times, wrote about diversity in company boards: “If we really want to change things, we need to find people who represent not only our investors but everyone else—from buyers to suppliers to local communities to our natural environment... One of the most interesting changes at McKinsey has been that we have stopped hiring exclusively from the usual cadre of business schools... we actively seek out people with different life experiences. Our senior ranks and key oversight committees now include former surgeons, scientists and technologists.”

Diversity and new blood generates new ideas. When a clash of new ideas from different sources takes place, we get new approaches to solve problems.

One may argue that our politicians come from different backgrounds and there may be no dearth of ideas. In the closed political system that we have in our country, the number of new entrants joining the political field is limited; veterans who are already there rule the roost. How do we make our governing systems more open? One of the ways would be to limit the term of elected representatives.

A person may start his political career in local bodies, work there for two terms and then move to the state legislature. He may work there for a maximum of two terms and if he wishes, move to the Central legislature again for a maximum of two terms. The limited terms should count for both houses of legislature. A person who has been a member of the lower house of legislature should not be eligible to become an MLC or a member of Rajya Sabha and vice versa. 

We can see the entrenched system of a few people controlling the ropes in other institutions. The concept of limited terms should be extended to labour unions, social clubs, independent directors of boards of companies and other institutions. To prevent the spouse, son or daughter of an elected representative occupying immediately the seat vacated by him/her or another political position, we need to have a compulsory wait period of five years after the vacancy arises before their family members can contest elections.

It may be a false hope that the ruling establishment would make any reform that would take away its privileges. We need a new party that has not tasted political power or a movement of the people to open up our political institutions.

Aravinda Reddy
Retired IAS officer, Telangana cadre (


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