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Tuesday, Dec 07, 2004

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Institutions must survive us all

S. Ramachander

THE emergence of the large, impersonal organisation built on egalitarian contracts between people is a recent development in human history, more so the 20th Century. The more natural order till then, and even till this day in many parts of the world, has been the formal hierarchy, very much evident in any religious order and in the armed forces. Otherwise, organisations tend to revolve around a fulcrum of personal power, and are led by those who have won or inherited it. The exercise of such power is often coercive, occasionally benevolent, charismatic, and even noble. The battles of yore and of the recent past have been fought over the control of traditional centres of power: Religious, commercial, parliamentary, judicial, or military. From the times of Asoka to Henry the Eighth, to the abdication of Edward VIII in England in the last century, conflict over who is supreme is a feature of the troubled relationships across power centres.

Since the advent of parliamentary democracy and the Information Age, the story of the post-industrial society has, however, been more of a tense struggle between the egalitarian and the feudal instincts of Man. Repeatedly, heroic and flamboyant leader-figures have given the lie to the principle that institutions are larger than men and women and outlive them. One is inclined to such reflections on seeing the recent dramatic developments in the Kanchi Mutt and the emotion-charged reactions of various quarters to the Tamil Nadu Police's actions and the Government's pronouncements, along with the simultaneous news about tectonic power shifts within the Ambani family.

Keeping well away from the merits of the cases or the veracity of the allegations and counter-moves, the lesson nonetheless is that iconic institutions are incredibly delicate and fragile. Despite their awesome power — perhaps because of it — these institutions are vulnerable to the individual foibles and weaknesses of leaders. Despite the colossal force of money power behind these institutions, a great deal depends, paradoxically, on the public trust.

One can draw, without doing violence to the reality, an apt parallel between the retail investor's lot and that of the conventionally religious devotee. In fact, the same person may well be both in his different roles. Our everyday experience would tell us that they also share the same characteristics of implicit faith in the durability and reliability of institutions. The key link that is equally taken for granted is the integrity of leaders on which they depend. All these offices can truly endure only as long as people in positions of power decide to let them. Be it an elected minister, a chairman or head of a religious order, the greater the unquestioned power and influence, the greater is the power to do good or otherwise. As the economy grows the rupee value of every decision or transaction will only acquire vast and unprecedented proportions.

Invariably however, what comes in the way of the ordinary person's unquestioned faith being upheld is the depressingly predictable greed that accompanies power. Then all sorts of aberrations set in. The leader's own perceived personal image as a larger-than-life figure, an exaggerated sense of one's historic role, pressures from personal constituencies and the favours rendered to and by them, and finally the prospect of individual gain — all these hold sway at the expense of the larger cause. The institution of an unfettered and free press, for instance, or an impartial judiciary and a permanent civil service are all bulwarks against the tide of dictatorship and the arbitrary exercise of personal will as institutional decision-making.

This is the potential for disaster that lies beneath any unquestioned leadership, however revered, despite sweeping mandates obtained through universal franchise, more so in a largely poor and illiterate society. If the vital distinctions among balancing centres of influence are ignored or systematically destroyed either at the Centre or in the States, the fabric of a democratic society is bound to suffer lasting damage. In a society where the rule of law is axiomatic, the expression "Let law takes its own course" should be seldom heard. Conversely where much is made of the phrase, the opposite might well be a clear risk.

We must remember that institutions are not born of some vague academic ideas, but comprise principles of daily conduct and forget this at our peril: The rule of law, parliamentary democracy, free speech, the right to be heard, one-person-one-vote, "innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt", "the head of the ruling party is not the government, much less the State" — to mention a few. All modern societies are built around large organisations that are coalitions of interests. They demand leadership that treats stakeholders as primary "rulers" and not those with the designations. Ultimately the quality of society can only be as good as the human beings who give these iconic organisations the best of their vision, integrity and competence. Preserving traditions and institutional practices must be at the heart of the new-fangled term "governance". I wonder why. Is it because the older, more familiar ones such as government, leadership or administration do not seem to deliver any longer?

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