Essay on the Uses of Power in Politics

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Even widely acclaimed rulers cannot rule by authority alone. They must, from time to time, coerce. If, however, the coercion is widespread, indiscriminate and regular and there is much resentment against its use, it means there is “loss of authority”, a phrase which underlines the key distinction suggesting a heavy reliance on power to be a sign that authority is on the wane.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s authority waned after 1973 and this swing could be attributed to diverse factors coupled with Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in Bihar for her removal from the office of the Prime Minister of India.

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To legitimise her authority she proclaimed, without the approval of her cabinet, a state of internal emergency. What the emergency wrought is a matter of history. The Congress’ (I), the party she headed, was dislodged from power in the parliamentary elections in January 1977.

Mrs. Gandhi was also defeated in her own constituency which she had nursed so fondly for about a decade. Despite the unbounded power that President Ershad had commanded and exercised for nearly nine years over Bangaladesh, his authority totally collapsed and he had to demit his office on the unrelenting demand of the combined Opposition and upon refusal of the Army Commanders to support his authority any longer.

Authority and power may pass gradually or dramatically from one individual or group to another and be either dispersed or concentrated. In the Parliamentary and presidential patterns of government there is alteration in government and the periodic elections, after regularly specified intervals, and the right to govern flows from the electorate. This is a gradual and constitutional process of transfer of power from one group or individual to another.

The dramatic change may occur under unusual circumstances as in the case of General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in Pakistan and General Ershad’s in Bangladesh. But it was the people’s power that swept Mrs. Corazon Aquino to the helm in the Philippines replacing President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial rule in February 1986.

The change of government in France in 1958 came about abruptly with a marked element of melodrama at the final stage which brought General De Gaulle to power ushering the era of the fifth Republic.

After the Watergate scandal the authority of the United States President, Richard Nixon, was completely eclipsed. The credibility of the Republican Government became suspect in the international community and Nixon resigned from his office.

In a society like the United States of America where there is separation between the executive and legislative branches and levels of government, and where individuals and groups technically outside of government are acknowledged to have the right and might to participate in policy-making, there is a diffusion of authority and power.

In the U.S.S.R. by contrast both authority and power were, before Perestrokia, concentrated. Technically, authority and power are concentrated in the Cabinet in the Parliamentary system of government.

The Cabinet is a wheel within a wheel. Its outside ring consists of a party that has a majority in the representative chamber; the next ring being the Ministry, which contains men who are most active within the party; and the smallest of all being the Cabinet, containing the real leaders or chiefs.

By this means is secured that unity of party action which depends upon placing the directing power in the hands of a body small enough to agree and influential enough to control. The Cabinet, in brief, is the driving and the steering force.

The exercise of power may involve the allocation of rewards or the dispensation of penalties or both. These may include the granting or withholding of direct or indirect financial benefits, such as income tax rebates or preferential higher education, and also a less obviously material benefit such as a symbol of rank or status, for example, a knighthood.

Such rewards and penalties are often sufficient for the purpose without recourse to coercion, such as imprisonment or death. It is in this context that Herbert Goldhammer and Edwards Shill define power as “the ability to influence the behaviour of others in accordance with one’s own ends.”

Our conclusion is now obvious wherever we find politics we discover conflict and the ways in which human beings cope with conflict. Indeed, when human beings live together in associations and create rules, authorities, or governments to deal with these conflicts, the very attempts to rule also help to generate conflicts. Which comes first, power or conflict, need not detain us; we find both conflict and power wherever human beings live together.

This phenomenon exists everywhere, therefore, politics is everywhere. But not all associations have equal powers. The State is the association that has the greatest power within particular territory.

Contemporary political scientists discard the use of the term State, but practical politics still recognises this universal entity to lay down the framework within which all other exercises of power must function. The State gives the directions and it also enforces them; if necessary by employing armed forces.

The State is the only association within the national frontiers which can use the nation’s armed forces to compel obedience to its orders. How essential that control is to the State’s effective power is one of the clearest lessons of history.

This definition of the State in terms of power may be formally satisfactory, in that it explains where power resides while it is unchallenged. It explains the nature of the relationship between government and the governed as long as the latter do in actual fact approve of, or acquiesce in, the decisions of the former.

But it does not tell us what causes subjects to decide to cease to accept the rule of one government and replace it by another. Governments change, sometimes peacefully, sometimes as a result of revolution. When that happens, the new government is supreme, as was its predecessor, but something of importance to the citizens has happened.

The power of the new government may be used for quite different ends from those which the previous government pursued. A definition in terms of power, therefore, is unsatisfactory in that it does not tell us something about the ends.

All governments may be alike in being formally supreme, but, in actual practice, governments vary widely in the way they use their power. An absolute monarch is not bound to take any account of the wishes of the subjects.

In a dictatorship, too, the government is not responsible to the nation for the way in which it uses its power, though it usually retains some of the democratic vocabulary and the formal framework of democratic institutions.

In a parliamentary democracy, the nation itself, through the medium of its electorate and its parliament, decides in greater or less detail the way in which a government will use its power.

Both government and people agree to bind themselves, the one to act in accordance with the wishes of the electorate and to accept the latter’s verdict on its performance, the other to change a government which does not meet with its approval only in accordance with a procedure laid down in advance. The form of government varies.

There may be a written constitution, or written laws, supplemented to a greater or less extent by unwritten laws, conventions, traditions and customs but the principle remains the same: the last word remains with the people.

The power of the people as an ultimate ratio is a confusing term in the midst of complexities of the social conditions prevailing in the modem world. It is, however, useful in that it reminds us that we are dealing with the power, not of inanimate machine, but of human beings over their fellowmen.

It is not possible to define in quantitative terms how much exercise of power by the rulers the governed will stand without revolution, because the amount will vary with historical, geographical and ideological conditions. But we know from history that, however absolute the right to exercise power may be, there is a limit in practice.

Human beings will stand just so much. Among the real and intangible factors which help the rulers to know when it is danger of overstepping the mark are the common and social traditions which, as Dicey said, have formed the outlook of both the governors and the governed.

There are certain things which, quite literally, cannot be done at a particular time and in a particular place. It is this incalculable reserve power possessed by the governed which makes it difficult to decide where, in a State, ultimate power really resides.


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