City City Bang Bang, Columns

The inadequacy of power?

Something seems to have changed about the way in which we understand power. Take Donald Trump. He has been elected to the most powerful position in the world, and it appears as if that too is not enough. Being the President of the USA carries with it an enormous amount of power, but from Trump’s perspective, it seems to be of the wrong kind. We do not know as of now as to how exactly he will exercise the power that he has at his command in the days and years to come, but we do know that he continues to feel the need to use another kind of power, in a way that is unprecedented.

The use of Twitter to react angrily to criticism, the choice of subjects on which he chooses to express himself (including the falling rating of Apprentice, a show that he made famous), the language in which he does so, the shutting out of media outlets that he thinks are biased against him in a very public and direct way, the repeated emphasis on repealing laws on the very first day of his term- all of these are patterns of behavior that are at odds with the kind of formal institutional power that Trump has been vested with.

Institutional power is slow and cold. It takes forever to come into effect, and when it does, in a democratic set-up full of checks and balances, it more often than not can seem like a compromised version of the original intent. Also, it is difficult to use in a purely personal sense, in that it allows critics and opponents enough room to continue with their attacks. A Meryl Streep or CNN can continue to act in a manner that ignores Trump’s obvious greatness, and there is nothing he, as the President of the most powerful nation in the world can do about it. The power at his disposal is helpless to act swiftly and surely against these kind of detractors, and that makes the whole idea of being powerful a little bit pointless, doesn’t it?

While Donald Trump is an easy and obvious example of the desire for this kind of power, he is by no means the only one who finds conventional modes of power too tepid in today’s world. The need seems to be to hunger for a kind of superpower- power needs to manifest itself palpably, and to produce outcomes visibly and within the same timeframe as one’s span of attention. The impatience with limitations of conventional power, and the greater ability to have a direct sense of the ‘people’, are contributory factors that are at work here. The idea of ‘people’ is no longer an abstraction, while power, if used as prescribed,  is still largely an abstract idea that does not animate the capability of the individual.

One gets the glimpse of same need in the way in which Sushma Swaraj operates. For the most part, she uses her superpower for good, helping out individuals in distress, promptly and directly. Occasionally, as in the case of the Indian flag-on-doormat episode, the power is used to intimidate and compel instant action. It short-circuits conventional modalities of persuasion, and employs overreaction as a tool to bring about the desired outcome. Direct power is by its nature, an overreach- its aim is to provide immediate and satisfactory closure- and to do so visibly, by going beyond established boundaries, so that everyone knows how the power at one’s command was used.

Demonetisation in India was an attempt to use conventional power in an unconventional way. It was Narendra Modi’s attempt to use his superpower in order to get outcomes that were otherwise beyond his reach. It sought to compress an ambitious outcome into a single action- a silver bullet that would if nothing else show the seriousness of his intent. The kind of power at work here is one that bristles with big intent, and shows itself with muscular obviousness, without being too mindful of the consequences that might follow.

In a somewhat different way, the courts of the land too are seeking to use power more directly. In spite of possessing enormous institutional power, increasingly we find that the courts are turning their attention to subjects that many believe they have little to do with, sometimes even getting involved through suo moto action. They have pronounced their opinion on a wide range of subjects, and have given directions of an extremely direct nature. Standing up for the national anthem in a movie theatre, precise instructions on how to run cricket in the country, banning IPL matches in Maharashtra, the list is a long one. It is almost as if power here leaks out of its mandated confines and spills over into a desire to bring about desired outcomes.

When jawans in the army and the para-military forces start voicing their grievances over social media, we know that conventional power is struggling to contain the burning desire for direct action. The traditional structures through which complaints can be heard are too anaemic to be relied upon today. The smug imperviousness to change cannot be allowed to stand anymore and power structures across the world will need to find ways to meet this challenge.

As individuals , we are increasingly being exhorted to value ourselves and to ask if we are making a difference. In a world where change is increasingly difficult to bring about, this desire to make a mark gets frustrated when it comes up against the formidable resistance of reality. The need to bypass restrictions and to make an impact, is a theme that is common to many diverse, and often divided constituencies. The quest for a new kind of power is visible in many different ways, and its implications are as yet not entirely clear. Donald Trump, will in all probability show us the outer limits of this new kind of power- the world needs to prepare itself.

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