Power, people and the press
Democracy without accountability is a contradiction in values. Every profession or instrumentality of state is answerable to the people, not arbitrarily but on just and reasonable grounds. The state is an organisation of the entire people of the nation. Since power is derived from the people, its exercise must be to promote the welfare of the people. But alas, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton).
When a monarch forgets his responsibility to the community, there is opposition to the state, which erupts in violence unless regulated strongly by laws. A lawless state makes administration dangerously chaotic. In modern times, when literacy makes reading the major source of information, apart from the three estates, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicative, there is the Fourth Estate — the press.
When the democratic state is fully literate and acquires the right to vote, universal franchise gives people power. Eventually, it is the little man’s franchise that settles democratic power. As Winston Churchill put it, “...the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.” This little man reads his daily newspaper and, fed on his own information, expresses his voice and controls the administration.
In an enlightened democracy it is the people through the press and the press operating through the people that wheels government. But the press may become rabid because it is often the source of power and of wealth. Thus, the moneyed classes control the press, and the press conditions the thinking and opinion of the electorate. Ultimately, a strong and absolute press, owned and managed by the proprietariat, becomes the government.
The proletariat and the common people lose their freedom. Thus, the capitalist chaos becomes truly the ruler. The wealthy are in power and the illthy (the poor and the depressed) are a subject and democracy loses its vitality.
If this deplorable state, this destitution is not to take place, the little man’s vote expressed through elections must command state power and all instruments of power must behave according to the rule of law. The law is made by the legislature; the legislators are elected to power by the people who, through appropriate legislation, make every state instrumentality comply with the laws of the realm. Not to have such control will lead to lawlessness and chaos. The Army will take over or fascism will replace democracy. There can be no civilised government nor happy people unless there is a legal system which guards the life and liberty of the common man. Thus the rule of law becomes all important, but the law is administered by the judges.
So it is that if India or any other country is to be truly democratic we must have a responsible legal system. The legal and medical professions and every other instrumentality obedient to the laws of the land make your laws humanist and sensitive to the well-being of the people and you have a good government. Failing this means despotism, military rule and slavery.
Today, the world over people want peace and order and a just share in the wealth of the nation. To achieve this we need fundamental rights and the paramount prescription which operates independently, free from fear or favour, and with equality writ large with one God to sustain a socialist, secular, democratic republic. To this mandate the press is no exemption. Lawyers must obey the law. The judges must comply with rule of good behaviour. The doctors are governed by rules of public health and so is every other profession. The press and the visual media cannot claim the credentials of functional anarchy. In that event there will be no order, and violence of individuals rather than the common good will destroy legality and justice.
The Magna Carta (the source of constitutional law in many democratic countries) and the laws of natural justice must become paramount, enforceable by the writ of the court and instinctively obeyed by the culture of the people. To be a true democracy we have to recall, for due compliance, the words of Abraham Lincoln who in his address at Dedication of National Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863, said: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India