Discretionary powers are a source of patronage to the favoured few. Society will benefit by doing away with them
Founder-President, Lok Satta Party
IT IS generally acknowledged that discretion and arbitrary power breed corruption and unaccountability. That is why all liberal democracies have built institutional mechanisms to ensure equal enforcement of rules for all. Power is a sacred trust, not a private privilege.
Sadly, our elected leaders have always acted like modern-day maharajas. The natural propensity of our society to prostrate before power has been compounded by the ill-considered licence-permit-quota-raj built in the quest for the ‘socialistic pattern of society’. Even as economic freedom has increased, the bad habits of the licence raj have stayed with us.
Petrol pumps, gas and telephone connections, fair-price shop dealerships, house allotments, nomination to temple committees or market committees have all become means of exercising discretionary power and extending out-of-turn patronage. Public sector in India had very little to do with people; it was the private sector of those in public office! Even a darshan of lord Venkateswara in Tirumala is subject to discretionary quota!
What can be done to end these corrupt, distorted, non-transparent, non-competitive processes? First, all discretionary quotas and MP and MLALADS should be disbanded. Second, for all awarding of natural resources, mandatory competitive bidding in a transparent manner should be institutionalised. Third, sectors that are amenable to competition, or those that do not form part of the government’s responsibilities should be taken out of government control. Suitable mechanisms should be evolved to democratically manage temples, market committees and cooperatives. Finally, citizens must be made aware of the limits to state power, and abuse of power and obstruction of justice must be made punishable offences.
A democracy cannot allow exercise of public functions as in a private estate. Competitive elections, peaceful transfer of power, political freedoms were all new to us when we first got taste of them. Once privileges and discretionary quotas are abolished, we will soon get used to a new culture. Corruption is not merely receiving a bribe for a favour. Arbitrary exercise of power, mala fide discretion, cronyism, nepotism and favouritism are no less dangerous to competition, society’s morale and public interest.
Public sector in India had very little to do with people; it was the private sector of those in public office
We can end these feudal practices only when we assert collectively and consistently that we refuse to be silent bystanders to those in office on our behalf abusing power for private gain at public cost. We also need to recognise the centrality of politics in our lives.
The best and the brightest who have shunned politics like the plague in the past must now recognise that true politics is a noble endeavour, and public office is a sacred trust. Such citizens who forsake personal gain to promote public good should accept politics and public office as a calling, not a profitable business. Only then can charlatans and power brokers that inhabit the corridors of power be held accountable, or replaced by a new crop of leaders who put the nation above self, and serve with humility, dignity and foresight.
Jayaprakash Narayan is Founder-President, Lok Satta Party.