Watchmen, unwatched

Nov 08 2013, 16:03 IST
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SummaryWe need measures to evaluate how transparent and fair our investigative agencies are.

We need measures to evaluate how transparent and fair our investigative agencies are.

Of late, investigative agencies have been in the news for the first information reports (FIRs) they have filed against many top industrialists, including Kumar Mangalam Birla and Naveen Jindal. Last year, all of Delhi was preoccupied with the agitation to pass a Lokpal bill with overwhelming power invested in said Lokpal and a (naive) belief that its introduction would stem corruption in India. There seemed to be a belief that a super-powerful investigative agency could stem political corruption in India and be a force for good. That, in fact, the investigative agencies can prevent the spread of crony capitalism in

India. However, all this begs the question — how good are our investigative agencies? How might we measure their performance?

I cite three quotes from Lord Acton. Two offer cautionary advice, while the third points towards some simple suggestions on accountability of investigative agencies. The basic premise is to ask how we might evaluate the guardians.

Lord Acton is famous for his remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The remark is often misquoted as “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but the brevity does not do justice to his insight, as Acton’s point was that absolute power cannot but corrupt absolutely. Thus he was averse to giving anyone absolute power. He is also known to have said that “great men are almost always bad men”. Now, the second quote doesn’t necessarily have universal applicability, and we in India have certainly seen exceptions. But it sounds a required note of caution about not getting carried away and believing that those we see as great cannot also be bad. So there is a need to recognise that unchecked power can be easily misused.

In India, one of the areas where such power can be easily misused is in the investigation of crimes. Who the investigative agencies file a charge against and who they don’t, when they file a charge and what charge they file are all critical choices that can lead to deep variations in outcomes. On the other hand, the need for these agencies in any effective democracy cannot be understated. They embody, in certain ways, the very essence of “one person, one vote” and that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. So then, what is the cornerstone of the structure we need?


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