This article was published in the March 1961 issue of Freedom First by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly referred to as Lok Nayak (Hindi for “People’s leader”). This excerpt was part of a paper prepared for the Seminar on “South and South-East Asia has Second Look at Democracy.” You can read the original, unabridged version here.
In the past few months much has been written about Panchayati Raj and there is no need to describe it in any detail. A few observations, however, are called for. First, it should be noted that the initiative for Panchayati Raj originally came not from the political motive of broadening the bases of our democracy or laying the foundations of what I have called ‘participating democracy’ but from the anxiety to obtain full public cooperation in the execution of development programme. On account of this restricted aim with which the experiment was started, its significance has not so well been grasped even by the conscious political elements in the country, much less by the people at large. It is clear, however, that the logic of the movement is driving it forward and constantly enlarging and deepening its implications. There is still a need, however, to arouse popular enthusiasm about this measure and to make the people realize that what was intended was not a procedural reform of the administration at the lower levels but a political revolution of the greatest significance for the people: that in effect the intention and the attempt were to bring Swaraj to the people. This understanding and enthusiasm cannot be brought about by Development Officers but by the democratic and popular leaders of the country irrespective of party and ideology and by social workers and intellectual and moral leaders generally.
In order for the Panchayati Raj may become the base of a true participating democracy, certain conditions must be fulfilled.
First, the education of the people, understood in the widest sense of the term, is an essential condition for the success of the experiment. This education can best be imparted by disinterested, non-partisan agencies engaged in social service or tasks of rural development. Political parties may also make a great contribution in this respect, provided they address themselves to the task in a non-partisan spirit. Perhaps the best way for them would be to create a common agency through which to carry on this work. Government officers and agencies might also do useful work in this sphere. Schools, libraries, and cooperative societies have an important role to play here. It should also be considered whether a non-party and purely educative body of the voters which might be called the ‘All-India Voters’ Association’ should not be formed in order to render educative service to the voters. There might also be a Centre jointly set up and conducted by the Union Community Development Ministry, the All-India Panchayat Parishad, and other All-India Rural Service Agencies. Such a Centre could help by way of producing literature, conducting surveys, studying problems, etc.
Second, it is well worth emphasising that the success of the Panchayati Raj would depend upon the extent to which organised political parties refrained from interfering with it and trying to convert it into their hand-maiden and use it as a jumping ground to climb to power. There is no doubt that as consciousness grows among the people at the ground level, they would be less liable to be moved about as pawns by political parties and ambitious politicians. But in the initial stages, it is necessary for political parties, in the interests of the people whom they claim to be anxious to serve, to place themselves under a self-denying ordinance and keep away from either setting up party candidates or putting pressure on the elected representatives to become party members, so as to be able to control the basic institutions of democracy.
Third, there should be a real devolution of power and not a make belief. It is possible to construct the outward structure of Panchayati Rai and to give it no substance. That would be like a body without a soul, dead from the start, a stillborn child. What is needed here are sincerity, imagination and courage. The people must be trusted. There is a tendency among those of us who have received some education to distrust the ability and intelligence of the common people, and it is possible to talk of devolution of power without in reality surrendering any power. No one can learn to discharge responsibility unless responsibility was really given to one. Withholding of responsibility, either on account of a lack of confidence in the people or of reluctance to surrender power, would lead naturally, as it has already done to a considerable extent, to an attitude of irresponsibility in the people who will forever be the look-out for heroes and miracle-makers to solve their problems. It is out of such a psychological situation that dictators are born. For democracy to be a success, it is necessary that the people are prepared and given full opportunity to shoulder responsibility.
Fourth, it is imperative that at each level the local authority should be given its own minimum resources. If control of resources remains in the hands of the State Government, the devolution is bound to be rather nominal. ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’ would be as true here as anywhere. I am afraid in this sphere the progress has been even less marked than in the case of the devolution of authority and functions. In this connection, Iand revenue, even though it does not amount to very much, should be the first resource to be placed totally at the disposal of the village Panchayat and Panchayat Samiti. It should not be the prerogative of the State Government to allocate certain sums out of land revenue to these bodies. Subject to an equalization fund for the purpose of aiding the poorer villages and blocks, the entire land revenue should be left in the hands of the Panchayats and the Samitis.
Other possible sources of revenue must be found and placed at the disposal of the Panchayati Raj in order that it might function with dignity and enjoy its autonomy.
Fifth, Panchayati Raj should be able as soon as possible to exercise real authority over the civil servants under its charge, who should be held fully accountable to it. Even in the matter of recruitment, it would be advisable to associate with the local authorities or their nominees. At the same time provision should be made to assure the civil servant’s justice and security of service and freedom to discharge their duties without improper interference.
Sixth – and as important as any of the previous conditions – it is my emphatic view that elections to village panchayats should be held without any electoral contests. This view has been severely criticised in some quarters. In some other quarters, opinion seems to have veered around to my point of view. I should like to say that the more I have thought over this question, the more convinced have I become that if Panchayati Raj is to succeed, contests in the elections to village panchayats must be avoided. The village today is a much-divided house. There are caste and class differences; there are family and other factions. There is no collective will in the village. On the other hand, the task that the villages face can never be tackled unless there is a united and collective effort. A community spirit must first be created before there might be proper community development. To introduce electoral contests into the village is to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
Several suggestions have been made as to how contests could be avoided. It should be remembered that I am speaking only of the village panchayats which, it has been generally agreed, should not be constituted of more than a thousand to two thousand souls. If the principle is accepted, it should not be difficult to find a way of putting it into practice. Unfortunately, it is the view in many quarters that unless there is an electoral contest, there is no democracy. It is this static, abstract and narrow view of democracy that comes in the way of finding a solution. But I am certain that unless a solution is found, Panchayati Rai and participating democracy would never be a success.
While the attempt to establish Panchayati Raj is a step in the direction of a more stable, popular and satisfying form of democracy, a step that, when properly executed, might succeed in taking swaraj to the people, it is not adequate by itself. In order that the edifice of democracy might be strong and invulnerable, the top layers of it must be built into the foundational structure. But, as the situation stands at present, the foundational structures will rise only upto the district level. Beyond which, i.e., at the State and Union levels, a completely different structure will continue to exist, resting on nothing more solid than a sand heap, namely, the amorphous mass of individual and disparate voters. This is a very unhappy mixture of two different principles and processes of democracy that, like water and oil, will not mix. The differences between the two may be summed up as follows:
The system that rests on individual voters has invariably a tendency towards concentration of power at the top, while the other system tends towards dispersal of power; in the former, organised parties that are run from above by small and powerful elites play the decisive role; in the latter, communities and communal representative bodies working from below exert the decisive influence; in the former, again, the representatives elected by the unorganised voters are not and cannot be under their control, in the latter the communal bodies exercise a continuous influence over the representatives they send to the higher levels; in the former system peoples’ participation is limited to casting of votes, in the latter there is direct participation of the whole people through the gram sabha and fairly close participation through the higher communal representative bodies; in the former system elections are expensive, in the latter just the opposite; the former requires mass media of propaganda and involves unhealthy psychological and emotional excitement, in the latter these evils are reduced to the minimum; in the former most voters are more unlikely to understand the issues which are placed before them than in the latter in which the voters at each level are likely to be well acquainted with the problems that they have to deal with.
It has been observed earlier that the amorphous, or inorganic, democracy, based on individual voters, tends to concentrate power at the top and does not provide for any control over the voters’ representatives. This is a very vital matter but unfortunately is not much appreciated. In this type of democracy, there is hardly any force that tends to pull power down towards the people. The voters, though their number may run into millions, in the nature of things lack any organizational means to check the upward concentration of power. There are, of course, political parties and their membership too might run into millions, but the trend everywhere is, even in the democratic parties, for power to be concentrated in a caucus of leaders. There are also special interests, chiefly economic, that attempt to influence this type of democracy, but this influence tends to be exercised over the centres of power. The growth of economic centralization which aids and abets political centralization has already been referred to. It is true that there are trade unions, cooperative societies and other similar organizations that provide a broadening structure for this democracy, but (a) they are not built-in structures of the democratic pattern concerned and (b) they themselves tend to become top-heavy and over-centralized.
The position is quite different in the case of participating or organic democracy. It is indeed being created in our country right now, but quite illogically, only halfway through. Because this democracy will be built up several tiers beginning with the basic tier of the gram sabha (which should be distinguished from a mere arithmetic sum of the voters in the village because it is endowed with a political entity and definite collective powers and privileges) and going up to the Lok Sabha, and because the powers and functions and duties and resources of each tier are clearly defined, power cannot but be dispersed in this system. Further, because the higher tiers are constituted of the representatives of the bodies at the lower tiers, power is much more likely to be exercised from below upwards rather than from the top downwards. For the same reason, the representatives at the higher level are under the constant gaze of the bodies–they are organised, statutory bodies and not a mere collection of amorphous individuals, let it be remembered–at the lower levels, and thus subject to the control of the latter.
This little elaboration will serve to make clear the vital differences between the two types of democracy. Now if Panchayati Rai stops at the district level and above that, shall we say, Party Raj rules supreme, the people are bound to feel cheated. They will interpret this illogical situation to mean reluctance on the part of the politicians really to give up power. It should seem to them–and they would be right–that real power still remained locked up in Delhi and the State capitals and that what had been given to them was not the real stuff. This kind of disillusionment might produce disastrous results.
Therefore, Panchayati Raj must not be terminated at the district level but extended forward upto New Delhi. Although this cannot be, done immediately, this should be declared to be our goal.
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