Whose eyes are watching us?

Jeremy Bentham conceived the notion of the panopticon as an efficient prison where a few jailors would be able to watch over, control and mould a large number of prisoners at minimal cost. Sonali Ranade writes.
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Updated on Nov 20, 2011 12:38 PM IST
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None | BySonali Ranade

Jeremy Bentham conceived the notion of the panopticon as an efficient prison where a few jailors would be able to watch over, control and mould a large number of prisoners at minimal cost. It was a highly successful institutional model that has been copied at schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons. Its chief virtue is its being an omnipresent and omniscient overlord.

But if it were just that, then Anna Hazare's project to build a panopticon around the higher levels of our civil service and politicians would not be half as bizarre.

For who are the members of the panopticons in institutions such as schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons? These are people who are there to be taught, trained, cured, moulded or disciplined. They are in some way deficient, and in need of rectification. Do our civil servants and political leaders belong to this category of people?

The panopticon begins by making everybody uniformly and completely visible to the jailor at all times without the subject being able to determine if he is being watched or not.

Hazare would have every bureaucrat and political leader under such a surveillance where his phone can be tapped, emails read, records of his decisions scrutinised at will, financial transactions prised open and personal life put under a scanner. That's the panopticon's eye that never blinks even if it isn't looking at you. The nature of the jailor's gaze is such that you are forced to assume he is watching you.

Politicians and bureaucrats are indispensable to the functioning of a modern society - whether it is an open democracy like ours or the authoritarian panopticon that Anna Hazare would put us in. What we need is better, brighter, more talented and far-sighted politicians than we have now.

Did I leave out honesty from the list of attributes? Yes, because keeping them honest is our job. This isn't a problem peculiar to politicians. Businesses have an inherent conflict of interest with their customers despite the mutual dependency between them. Businesses wield considerable power over their customers as well. Yet, the panopticon has never been the solution to the management of these conflicts.

You cannot legislate away inherent problems. The only solution to such problems has been competition. Societies set up markets and rules that make businesses compete so that peer pressure keeps exploitative instincts of businesses in check.

Democracy itself works better than an authoritarian government precisely because it compels politicians to compete for our votes and favour forcing them to come up with better solutions to problems than they otherwise would. Competition among politicians is what we need most.

Since the 1990s, we have had fractured verdicts and coalition governments. Furthermore, state elections are no longer synchronised with those at the Centre. Every ruling party has skeletons to hide, elections to fund, party workers to pay and propagandists to motivate.

Competition between and among politicians and political parties has diminished. That is the key that enables them to cut cozy backroom deals and to connive at each other's misdemeanours.

We need to shed the hypocrisy that pretends these noble souls - politicians - are there to serve us out of the goodness of their heart. We need to recognise the need to pay them properly, not only in office but also when we boot them out.

Our failure to be realistic about elections and party funding lies at the heart of corruption. The State and society need the politicians, no matter how ugly they are. So let us find a transparent, open, legal way to fund them.

We don't belong in a panopticon. We must not compromise our freedoms to be rid of corruption. Democracy works well enough.

Sonali Ranade is a market analyst. The views expressed by the author are personal

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