agenda for democracy
Return to the roots
Our political institutions should be based on the ancient Indian polity, rather than drawing from the West
by MG DEVASAHAYAM
AMID the cacophony over the Lokpal and anti-corruption issues, we have been consistently missing the wood for the trees – a fact that has been succinctly brought home by a group of eminent citizens in an open letter to India’s political leadership.
The letter says: “We support the need for the urgent passage of a well-crafted Lokpal Bill by Parliament. We, however, believe that the Bill is only one small but critical step in the national task of weeding out the plague of corruption. This draft Lokpal Bill is intended to address episodic corruption, but is unlikely to have any significant impact on day-to-day corruption which is insidious and demeaning.”
The question we need to ask is: Why have things come to such a pathetic pass? Why has corruption become insidious, demeaning and a plague? The answer lies beyond the ongoing “corruption debate”, it concerns the democracy and the democratic governance we practice and their precipitous fall in the past few decades. We need to face the reality that, commencing with democracy at Independence, India descended to autocracy (during the Emergency) and then oligarchy (post-Emergency) and is now more of a kleptocracy.
In Gandhian thought, India’s democratic structure was to rise storey by storey from a foundation comprising self-governing, self-sufficient, agro industrial and urbo-rural local communities. These self-governing entities would control and regulate the use of natural resources for the good of the community and the nation. The highest political institution of the local community would be the gram sabha of which all the adults are considered members. The next storey would be the panchayat samiti and then the district council which would be formed by integration of the panchayat samitis of the district.
In Gandhian thought, India’s democratic structure was to rise from a foundation comprising self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial and urbo-rural local communities.
All the district councils of a State would come together to create the Assembly. The Assemblies, in like manner, would bring into being the Lok Sabha. Thus, the political institution at each level would be an integration of all the institutions at the lower level. Mahatma Gandhi stated his concept of India’s democracy simply:
“... There are seven hundred thousand villages in India, each of which would be organised according to the will of the citizens, all of them voting. Then there would be seven hundred thousand votes. Each village, in other words, would have one vote. The villagers would elect the district administration; the district administrations would elect the provincial administration and these in turn would elect the President who is the head of the executive....”
To facilitate this vision, the Objectives Resolution called for a Constitution “wherein all power and authority of the Sovereign Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of government, are derived from the people”, that is to say, the true swarajya.
Instead, what we got through the Constitution was just the opposite – an upside-down structure: an all-powerful Parliament and Central government; a State government and legislature with limited power, and panchayats and urban local bodies with no power. There was no trace of swarajya. The structure of democracy, built into the original Constitution, had a solid concrete roof (Central government and centralized institutions) with weak brick walls (State governments and institutions), and no foundation (grass-roots institutions in the villages and districts). No wonder, when Indira Gandhi took a kick at this edifice on the midnight of June 25, 1975, it collapsed like the house of cards it was.
It is unsurprising that in subsequent years a politician-businessman-bureaucrat oligarchy was formed and led to governance and policy decisions following an alien agenda that facilitated massive loot of natural and man-made resources, and the resultant corruption.
The Constitution has centralized all power in the government and made it a tool for the powers-that-be to rule rather than an instrument for the people of India to govern themselves. All legislative powers are vested with the Parliament and State Legislatures. The administrative apparatus and financial control is also co-terminus with the jurisdiction of Parliament and these legislatures. The higher judiciary is far removed from the people in terms of distance, cost and procedures and is accessible only for the rich. In the event, the concentration and centralization of power and authority have become near absolute.
The Constitution did not provide for democracy or governance at the grassroots level, thereby depriving the people of any say in the day-to-day management of their affairs. All natural resources stood centralized and subject to arbitrary allocation. Only in 1993 was the establishment and election, respectively, of panchayats and municipalities facilitated through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments. But, till date, these entities are unable to exercise most of the powers and functions so benevolently given to them by the government.
The need of the hour is to democratize India’s polity and management of natural resources. Jayaprakash Narayan, the man who defeated autocracy in 1977, had an agenda for democracy in line with Gandhian thought as early as 1959. It was clearly laid down in his seminal essay, “A Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity”. Even after five decades, every word of it rings true and relevant.
According to JP, our political institutions should be based on the principles enunciated and practised in the ancient Indian polity because that would be in line with the natural course of social evolution. Those principles are more valid from the point of view of social science than any other.
What we practise, instead, is drawn from the Western polity, which is based upon an atomized society, the State being made up of an inorganic sum of individuals. This is both against the social nature of man and the scientific organization of society. The ancient Indian polity was much more consistent with these. This raises the question: What should be the principles and form of Indian polity today?
IF India’s present political structure and institutions of governance are to be soundly based, if they are to draw sustenance from Indian soil and, in turn, are to sustain, revive and strengthen the whole fabric of Indian society, they must be related to the social genius of India and their texture must be woven with an organically self-determining, self-developing communal life in which occupations, professions, functions and decisions are integrated with the community and not dictated by rulers cocooned comfortably in the State and national capitals.
This is not only an issue of Constitutional forms or political systems. It is a creative issue in the widest sense of the term. It is a question of an ancient country regaining its lost soul. g