In New Delhi, a 66-year-old man suffered a heart attack after being allegedly pushed by two constables. His fault: his son had disturbed a constable talking on his mobile phone.
Akash Banerjee, nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, slapped a traffic policeman. The latter's fault: he dared to pull Akash up for violating traffic rules.
The Karnataka assembly might ban private television cameras from covering house proceedings. Reason: three of its members were caught watching porn by the cameras.
Different geographies, different actors and different circumstances -- what connects all the cases? Well, it is power, rather the abuse of it. In the case of the constable, it was plain hubris born out of being a policeman; in the case of Akash, it was the power he derived from being the kin of the chief minister; and the Karnataka case and that of Vadra need no explanation.
In everyday India, such instances are too commonplace to evoke shock. Policemen misbehave with commoners, bureaucrats harass people, politicians, their relatives and cronies dictate terms to others; and whosoever in position of authority abuses the powers vested in it. The country takes it as a given -- a fait accompli. That’s why we grin and bear when the prime minister's convoy holds up busy traffic for hours, when vehicles with red beacon and the men inside them get preference over ordinary mortals.
Anyone in any position of authority—legal or extra-legal—takes his powers for granted. And, blame it on our feudal past, we also indulge them. The Indian Constitution allows grants equality to all citizens. In the eyes of the law, every individual is equal. The gap between this idealistic position and reality, however, is too stark. In the six decades of Independence, too many things around have changed, but not this differential treatment to the holders of power.
That continues to be the biggest weakness of our democracy. If power is presumed to be a fixed quantity, someone always enjoys it at the cost of the other. The arrangement of institutions and hierarchies and an independent legal system are supposed to ensure that there is the right balance -- where powers vested in authorities do not intrude too much into individuals’ independence. Constitutions around the world provide rights for that reason.
It is obvious from the everyday abuse of power that the combination of legal powers and several rights has not worked well. In the social, political and administrative scheme of things, the common man is still secondary to the wielders of authority. The policeman in rural parts thus can be God—or devil, if you please—to masses. And he has to deal with a whole pantheon.
The situation calls for redistribution of power. However, given that those who enjoy it won't surrender it easily, it has to be wrested from them. How? There are no easy answers. Popular movements are one solution.
The Anna Hazare movement was one brilliant example how popular movement could work. It almost brought the entire political class to it knees before succumbing to the follies of its leaders. At the height of the moment, the leaders could have extracted a lot from the political class -- they had almost succeeded in getting a good Lokpal Bill but they squandered the advantage by being too tactless and too obstinate.
Hope lies in involving the courts. Public Interest Litigation petitions have expanded the role of the judiciary into the legislative and executive space, curtailing the virtual unlimited powers of both. However, as instruments against injustice, these have come as great relief to the common man. But there is a limit to how far courts can intervene in cases. Other institutions have to deliver too.
Resistance at the individual level would be of little help. But community action in the direction could be a wonderful initiative. Local communities, if they decide to act with a sense of purpose, could be a serious challenge to the wielders of power. The NGO fraternity should focus its attention on making communities alive to the issue of power -- their power.
However, the process of reclaiming power should start with the realisation that something is amiss. In the absence of that the rogues in the system will continue to have a free run.