City City Bang Bang, Columns

Negotiating With Power?

On a recent trip to a small North Indian town, one heard a familiar story of an effective local politician who worked hard to solve the problems of the people who came to him for help. He held a daily durbar, something most local ground-level politicians in India need to do to look after the needs of their constituents. His work was generally appreciated in his constituency, and this was borne out by the number of times he retained his seat. Typically, the kind of work that that was spoken of involved getting last minute train tickets, helping someone get a government job with the help of a note or a call, helping someone get or stop a transfer, get admission to a school, using one’s private quota to get someone a ticket or, in a large number of cases, mediating a dispute between two parties.

It is interesting to reflect upon the manner in which help was provided in a large number of instances. In most cases, the nature of the intervention was either to ensure that the rules that already existed were followed, or to step in and help break the rules using one’s privileged position. There were some institutional interventions- helping get a road built, fixing the drains in a locality, getting a power sub-station sanctioned, and so on, but the vast majority of interventions were slanted towards granting favours to individuals using one’s influence. Power was used most often an exception for the individual, rather than as a rule for the collective. In effect, what makes for an effective politician, simultaneously underlines how ineffective politics can be as an agent of transformation.

The discretionary use of power is particularly striking when it comes to the police. The role of the police is to enforce the law, and in theory this gives little room for manoeuvre. In practice though, a significant amount of police work lies in acting as middlemen for disputes. It is not at all unusual to have the police act as mediators, and try and arrive at a settlement between the injured party and the other side, while taking a cut for their troubles. In a real-life scenario, the police often expend a lot of energy in trying to convince those with a problem as to why they should not come to the police. The is the reason why filing a First Information Report in India is so difficult; the possibility of a negotiated settlement often takes precedence over the application of the law. Power when dangled over these situations has a way of pushing those involved towards a negotiated understanding; not surprisingly, the powerful and connected have the upper hand in such a situation.

The preservation of status quo in an environment of rules requires both an exaggerated formalisation of rules as well as a great willingness to bend these in order to get a desired outcome. The apparent intractability of the rules is used as an incentive nudging those involved towards a negotiated settlement. The success of this gambit depends on the ability to move dramatically between a position that argues that the rules are completely fixed to one that allows for complete flexibility just this once.

The use of power to cement existing reality rather than to alter it seems to be the motivation at work here. In theory, rules are rules, and everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, no matter who is involved. In practice, this is far from being the case. For starters, rules in India are constructed so that in many cases, it is virtually impossible to implement them blindly, so complex, onerous and far removed from reality are they. This makes rules contingent by necessity; and it is this flexibility in the application of rules that creates both corruption as well helps move things along.

But above all, it keeps a form of social order intact. The legislative and administrative systems in India are subservient to the social ecosystem, and work within its ambit. Power thus becomes a social instrument that needs to be brokered keeping the dominant interests in mind. The disinterested application of the law is not possible in a context where these interests take priority. Hierarchies are respected, networks are nurtured, money speaks loudly, and settlements are negotiated.

Up to a point, it cannot be denied that there is a certain practical wisdom in following this approach. Going to ‘court-kacheri’ is in India a truly onerous process that could turn out to be ruinous in the long run, and the run in India is always long. A wise compromise that recognises the reality of the world and is content to operate with its parameters is a sensible, if not attractive option for many.

The idea of the ‘settlement’ which finds a measure of mutual self-interest being catered to is only thinly related to abstract notions of justice. The poor and weak ‘accept’ an unfair resolution because the alternative is much worse. What are otherwise their rights become favours that they seek from the powerful for a price. The powerful build constituencies by creating a cumbersome system and then offering a way to navigate the same.

This explains how even well intentioned and radical laws do not quite succeed in meeting their objectives. The space that is left open between a rule and its application gives leverage to extract something in return for the power one wields. Which is why in India, nothing can be taken for granted but virtually everything can be negotiated for a price.

The ability to negotiate a solution to mutual advantage is a mark of a functioning social system, but when the same occurs under the threat of the use of power, it serves often to perpetuate a skewed and unjust arrangement. A system of governance must provide instruments of continuity and change. Currently, there is too much of the former and too little of the latter.

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