By Vivek Pattanayak*
What does the word power mean in political science? Coming from the Latin word potere, it means ‘to be able’ and has gone to mean the capacity to direct or influence, possession of control or authority over others. It embraces political, civil, military, police, executive, legislative and judicial power.
From the ancient times, the king or the monarch enjoyed all power of the State, hence they were called sovereigns which meant possessors of supreme power, until Magna Carta came. Then began a new phase in history in UK when the Parliament consisting of privileged class of landlords or rentiers, barons and aristocrats known later as House of Lords shared power with king. In course of time, with century of strife and struggle between king and nobility and monarch and Church culminating in Civil War and beheading of King, and Glorious Revolution the lords shared power with middle class and common people. Thus, the Parliament got bifurcated into House of Lords known as upper house and House of Commons called the lower house. While property was the basis of membership and right to vote to start with, the parliamentary reforms made property no longer the basis of membership or voting right in the election. With passage of time women got the right to vote.
The Indian constitutional system set the trend bringing universal franchise. The Indian women got right to vote even when the Swiss women did not have that right.
King over time became figure head. The House Lords once powerful became more symbolic. The constitutions which followed the British model of parliamentary system also made upper house less powerful than the lower, known as popular chamber. The saying for a long time was when the second chamber agrees with lower house it is redundant and if it disagrees it is mischievous.
In India although second chambers did exist from the days of Government of India Act 1935, and continued under the Constitution, many were abolished during the hey day of populism.
The Prime Minister became the executive head but remained accountable to the Parliament.
Judiciary, an ancient institution under customary law and empowered by legislation of Parliament began to be independent of the King and Prime Minister, and of Parliament in UK. Montesquieu while observing the British system gave his doctrine of separation of power. This concept became an integral part of the American constitution. After the case Madison Vs Madbury, the Supreme Court in US acquired the authority to declare a legislation of Congress ultra vires to the Constitution. India while adopting the Parliamentary form of democracy followed the concept of separation of power of US. Today based on Basic Structure doctrine propounded by the Apex Court it could declare a constitutional amendment also invalid thus curtailing the power of Parliament no matter by what majority it has passed the amendment and how many States have endorsed it.
The CAG,UPSC and Election Commission, all constitutional bodies in India following similar institutions in UK and US being free from executive and legislature have independent status and to exercise power free from interference of the government.
Civil service, popularly known as bureaucracy grew when the day-to-day administration of the State became complex with specialized legislations. Such was their sway over the functioning of the government Lord Hewart called it “New Despotism”. It was said by Ramsay Muir that bureaucracy thrives under ministerial responsibility. Bernard Shaw described it as an aristocracy of idols and democracy of idolators.
In India bureaucracy was the British gift to the governance of the sub-continent as described by historian, Perceval Spear. When the country became independent, the Constitution gave independent status to make the institution of civil service politically neutral, to follow British example where bureaucracy has steadfastly remained neutral.
Shift of power vertically began when unitary form of state yielded place to federal system. Example of US has inspired many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, and Brazil to follow federal system. India also took that route. Countries which are not recognized as democracies like USSR and China also gave power to Republics or Provinces.
India went further by making provisions under Directive Principles to create three tier democratic system called Panchayati Raj through legislations which have been further fortified and enlarged by constitutional amendment creating Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samiti and Grama Panchayat. More interestingly, it has taken power to village level creating Palli Sabha.
In Switzerland under the cantonal federal democracy the ancient Greek form of city state concept of direct democracy has developed in some cases when the entire population of canton meets to transact business called Landsgeminde.
Over the years, press, newspapers, electronic media like radio, television and with internet social media have exercised influence over the society, state, government, legislature and even judiciary. What was called the ‘Fourth Estate’ in one of the famous debates in the British Parliament in the 18th century by great English political leader, Edmund Burke has expanded its influence on the extent that in a democracy it can influence election, stability of government, and ensure freedom of the downtrodden, weak, and poor. It is not only true in the Western countries it is equally correct in other countries, developing and developed. Media includes international media. Interestingly, even in non-democratic countries and dictatorship it has shaken the seat of dictators, despots, and tyrants. The Pakistani government under military influence and dictatorship for more than sixty years also has yielded to fearless reporting of the Dawn, country’s iconic newspaper. In Nigeria under military rule media was openly sometimes trenchantly critical of the government. It is strongly believed that Nixon quit his Presidency due to relentless exposure of Watergate scandal by US media way back in 1974. In the last five decades the media has become even more influential in the world than before with live television and internet.
In the recent years civil society of a country or even global civil society has been effective in imposing influence on the governing architecture. Over the years Transparency International has exposed high-level corruption in many powerful regimes whether under democracy or otherwise. Oxfam’s report on inequality has made ruling classes feel uneasy and shiver and raise debates in the legislatures, when played up by media.
To what extent academia has influenced the governance needs deep study across the globe. That it has certainly done in America having the longest period of liberal democracy is not debatable.
Across the globe there is increasing discontentment with political regimes, system of governance, and people in authority in view of high level of inequality, persistence of unacceptable intolerance and discrimination on the grounds of gender, race and religion, high incidence of malnutrition, child mortality, ill-health, poverty and sexual harassment in high places and spousal violence more pronounced now after the pandemic. Added to this is rising cost of living, inflation, decline in economic growth and unemployment among enormous number of millennials. Demagogues are having field day, anyone promising better future, an El Dorado or Utopia whether real or phantom is having ascendancy. Impartiality of law enforcing authorities is being questioned.
Time has now come to ensure political power is diluted and the institutions are not under control of elected political bodies. The superintendence and control should be vested with an independent institution representing judiciary, legislature, executive, opposition, media, and civil society.
India can show the way if people ask for more decentralization and delegation of power from Centre to States and from States to Zilla Parishads, Panchayat Samitis, Gram Panchayats and finally to villages. Dream of the Father of Nation will be a reality.
*The author is a former bureaucrat and held important positions in aviation and power regulatory body. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.