Healthy Suspicion

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Let us remind ourselves again of James Madison’s caution about human nature that no man with power should be trusted absolutely. In his own words he said: “If men were angels, no governments would be necessary.” The government itself constitutes of men hence the same principle would apply. That is, do not trust or allow, to the extent possible, too much power accumulating in any single hand or institution. Since governance is precisely about power, it necessarily also means that institutions and individuals given the charge of governance will have to be entrusted with power. The only way to get about this, as Madison so insightfully predicted, would be to build checks and balances into the governance mechanism to counterweigh individuals and institutions given official power. The spirit of the American constitution, as also most other mature democracies, they say is built on the foundation of this understanding, James Madison being one of the most outspoken founding fathers of the American constitution, and later the third president of the country. This understanding preaches the need for a healthy suspicion of power (and to this we may also add, money), for the fact is, essential qualities as both are, they also have tremendous potential to corrupt those in whose hands they accumulate, especially when not accountable. Hence the numerous checks and balances built into the structure of this model of the democratic polity – the emphasis here is on constitutionalism, and a liberal one. Political scientists are often given to comparing this model of democracy, to the alternate one which draws its inspiration from the French Revolution, and believes in the fundamental goodness of man. The belief here is, by simply empowering the people unconditionally and totally, justice and equality would result automatically. That is to say, the structure of democracy would be a consequence of this empowering. History’s testimony is revealing. In the years since the French Revolution, which is supposed to have given France a democracy, France has run through two monarchies, two empires, one proto-fascist dictatorship, before finally arriving at its present unbroken run as a republic. (Myron Weiner: Empirical Democratic Theory, quoted by Fareed Zakaria in Future of Freedom).

The musing on democracy’s intricacies is to highlight the need for effective use of checking and balancing mechanisms built into, or else recently introduced into democracy’s structure even in our own situation – Right to Information, RTI Act for instance. We are of the opinion that this brilliantly conceived Act, is meant not merely for digging out information from the file racks of the officialdom when there are reasonable suspicions of official foul play, but also to make all subjects of the democratic polity develop a healthy suspicion of unaccounted power in anybody’s hand. It is, we are again of the opinion, an encouragement to the people to be intuitively inquisitive about public affairs, and insist on public affairs to remain on public domain. One simple case will demonstrate this logic. We have never heard of a scandal in the manner the hospitals in the state maintain their blood banks, but it is not uncommon to read of generous members of the society and civil organizations, coming forward to donate blood at these hospitals. Shouldn’t it be part of the healthy democratic instinct of every subject of a mature democracy to want to know where and how all these thousands of gallons of donated blood are being used? Not by way of an accusation, but as an exercise of the healthy suspicion of official power that Madison recommended, shouldn’t the public use the democratic instrument of RTI to demand to get copies of the files related to the distribution or sale of donated blood? There are so many other areas where the public can ensure democracy is being practised democratically. The recent revelation in Mumbai through an RTI application that most transfers of police constables in the city are on the basis of demi-official letters from ministers and their cronies, and not on routine departmental workload distribution as it should be, could for instance be an example to emulate in Manipur.

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