Senior Professor of Sociology, University of Colombo
There are many things around us, besides alcohol and drugs, which are addictive. Two of these are wealth and power. Those who have tasted power and enjoyed wealth would like to have more of both, unless society takes effective measures to restrain them. Modern capitalist societies encourage accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals and firms as it is believed that capital accumulation is necessary for productive investment. So having billionaires around is not considered a bad thing in many countries today, in spite of widespread poverty as is the case in India.
Similarly, increasing concentration of power within expanding territories was considered a great thing in the past. Colonial empires were later condemned by liberally minded people everywhere, but in their hay day, an empire was a proud possession of the emperor! When modern, representative, democratic governments came into being following the triumph of liberalism, citizens elected their rulers on the basis of their commitment to certain ideas and values, not their personal or primordial characteristics. The rulers would hold office as long as they enjoyed the trust and confidence of their electors. Modern constitutions generally specify when and for how long the leaders and representatives are elected by the people and what conditions and within what limits they could exercise power. Since power is addictive almost like drugs and alcohol and many other things, the rulers can try to abuse power or remain in power exceeding widely accepted limits when effective constitutional and/ or legal restrictions do not exist. Such restrictions curb absolute power exercised by rulers. They are often forced to share power, both horizontally and vertically. Various institutional arrangements at the macro political level, i.e. bureaucratic, judicial, legislative and executive, prevent concentration of absolute power in the hands of one person or a small group of people. There was a time when political leaders in this country sought guidance from independent but experienced and knowledgeable public officers. Separation of powers between judicial, legislative and executive spheres of government reduces the possibility of abuse of power.
" Sharing of power, both horizontally and vertically in some sense amounts to a deepening of democracy. For instance, the empowerment of democratically elected local councils to manage local affairs and promote local development allows local people to have greater influence on the management of their own affairs "
On the other hand, devolution of power from the centre to the periphery enables local and regional bodies to have considerable control over local and regional affairs, largely independent of central control. Excessive concentration of power at the centre leads to the alienation of local communities. Empowerment of local institutions and communities enables the latter to participate in the decision making processes with respect to the management of local issues. India amended its constitution to devolve more powers to local government bodies in recognition of their importance for local communities. Switzerland is an exceptional case where this idea has been taken to its logical end whereby the local communities are empowered to ask for a local vote to resolve important local issues.
Sharing of power, both horizontally and vertically in some sense amounts to a deepening of democracy. For instance, the empowerment of democratically elected local councils to manage local affairs and promote local development allows local people to have greater influence on the management of their own affairs. Similarly, empowerment of regional level elected bodies like the provincial councils to take charge of regional development can lead to healthy competition among regions to attract investment, mobilise local resources, attract outside expertise, etc. When regional bodies manage regional affairs, they are unlikely to feel alienated from the center. Moreover, addressing local issues by the agencies of the centre, be it supervision of schools or local infrastructure development, cannot be more efficient and less costly than when they are handled by local institutions. This is also a sure way to kill any sense of ownership by the local people.
In spite of the fact that sharing of power brings multiple benefits to citizens, public interest in the subject in this country does not seem to be very high. Why? Firstly, though we have sharing of power on paper, there appears to be little sharing of power in reality, either horizontally or vertically. So, citizens do not witness tangible benefits of power sharing. Secondly, political leaders and parties talk about virtues of power sharing when they are in opposition but once in power, they do not show much interest in power sharing. And finally sharing of power does not figure prominently in the public discourse. Many politicians have a sectarian or a partisan view of power sharing and do not recognize its intrinsic value. The main stream media follow suit and do not facilitate a broader public discussion on the subject.