Can politics be business as usual? | Sunday Observer

Can politics be business as usual?

19 June, 2022

These are the rules of big business…. Get a monopoly; let society work for you; and remember that the best of all business is politics.” – Frederic C. Howe

Sri Lankans have been trying all different types of combinations and permutations of the same disgraced set of politicians in their attempts of finding solutions to the current economic and political problems of the country, without much success.

Filling positions in the Parliament looks almost like a kindergartner trying to fix a jigsaw puzzle by pressing random pieces into vacant places. There is a possibility that leading business people in the country might be given the task of handling a few of the key ministries expecting that their knowledge and experience in business will help the country get back on its feet.

There are some people and civil organisations voicing their displeasure already about that possibility on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’ and lack of transparency in the process. Others are of the view that we should try it out since nothing else has worked so far and we have nothing much to lose anyway.


However, if one is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the people who are volunteering to shoulder the responsibility of finding solutions and to the policy makers who are willing to take the risk of trying them out, one might be able to see some of the good that could come out of such decisions.

One of the examples cited by the people, who do not believe that success in business does necessarily imply the potential to be successful in politics, is Donald Trump and his presidency in the US which ended up in an unprecedented, undemocratic, and unsuccessful attempt of overturning the election results through violence.

Though it may be a legitimate reason to have such a fear, one should also not overlook the fact that the people were able to deny Trump a second term too. The candidate Trump, the self-proclaimed deal maker (Trump: The Art of the Deal written by Tony Schwartz) was able to convince a majority of narrow-minded, white-supremist, business minded people to vote for him in 2016.

Shortly thereafter, people started to realise that all his deals were benefiting only him and the circle of his family and friends. Not only was Trump ousted in 2020 but he is also being investigated regarding involvement in the infamous Washington riots and other corrupt deals during his presidency.

Though the Trump presidency is the most recent and publicised experiment of a ‘businessman in politics’ that justifiably has instigated fear in a lot of people about trying it out in their own countries, there are other examples of successful businessmen who have gone on to become successful politicians too.

One such success story was added to the history books by the three-term Mayor (2002 – 2013) of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Digging into history, one would certainly be able to find a lot more success stories like that around the world.

If one looks at the bigger picture, business people are also citizens with political rights and responsibilities similar to the rest of the community. They may not be facing the problems with the same intensity as others due to their ability to insulate themselves using all the resources that are at their disposal.

If (it may be a very big IF) the people who choose to come out of their business cocoons and participate in politics are motivated by a genuine will to do good, then not only should they be appreciated but also supported in every which way possible.

Oppressed backgrounds

Businessmen can bring new thinking and fresh energy into the public service. Entrepreneurs, especially the ones who have come from financially oppressed backgrounds and achieved the riches with the help of State funded education, health and other welfare benefits may have a genuine urge to give back to the country.

If the primary motive of a businessperson to get into politics genuinely is to give something good back to the society and not take anything back from the public coffers, then that thought itself would make him/her a better politician than most of the others.

One could also consider the fact that business people come from an ecosystem where they have to produce measurable results within regular intervals. Politicians usually provide hopes of such results during their campaigns but know that there are no consequences if they do not achieve them until they are up for the next election in five or six years. Come next elections, they know how to manipulate people’s emotions and pitch a different sequence of hopes.

If business leaders do not deliver, then the business will fail, and they will have to face the consequences whereas politicians can win their next election even if they failed to deliver in their previous term.

Business leaders also know that they are answerable to shareholders who usually are not that forgiving in their demand for value creation, transparency, and accountability. Therefore, a business leader turned politician would not have much trouble in seeing the citizens of the country as shareholders and putting their interests and expectations at the top of the priority list.

Such attitudes can counter the superiority complex the other politicians have developed thinking that they have a divine right to rule rather than being humble servants of the citizens. If politicians give the impression that the businesses owe them for setting them up with Government contracts, awarding tenders (sometimes even outside the normal tender procedures), or arranging for certain approval procedures in the fast track, then the businesses feel obligated to show their appreciation which can be seen as bribery.

Such procedures can easily convert an entrepreneur to a ‘tenderpreneur’ (a businessman who is guaranteed to win the tender through political connection). A business leader can be expected to have a better sense of blending private sector networks with State sector objectives creating a successful partnership in developing the country than what a career politician does. Successful business leaders usually have an eye for talent and entrepreneurs and know how to create an environment that can improve creativity and productivity of people.

If used with the correct intentions such business leader turned politicians would certainly be able to optimise the country’s gains through its human resources. While the career politician sees the middle class as the group to take advantage of through misleading promises and disproportionate taxes the business leader would see it as the talent pool filled with potential entrepreneurs who can expand the tax base while providing employment.

Misunderstand popularity

Business leaders and their followers alike should be careful not to misunderstand popularity as goodwill, though the goodwill can make one popular among people who appreciate it.

Needless to say, that it is the modus operandi of almost all the politicians in countries like ours. Real leaders do not usually have to make an extra effort to create goodwill.

It is their nature. A good leader of a country, a business, a political or a charity organisation would be a competent person with a vision for the country or the organisation and the courage to always stand on higher grounds of moral and ethical standards.

It is extremely important for the citizens to know the difference between a leader with good will and one without, since we can only see what we know and nothing more.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fifteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]