OPINION
THE THREAT OF SELF-GOVERNMENT
Congress Minister Takes Stand Against Nehru-Mahatma Gandhi-Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul Legacy
- S Pal
Congress Minister Takes Stand Against Nehru-Mahatma Gandhi-Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul Legacy



RAHUL GANDHI, THE RISING SUN/SON of the House of Gandhis, can justifiably claim that one of his dad Rajiv Gandhi's notable achievements was the ushering in of the panchayati raj in its current form, even though the Constitutional amendment came after the former premier's assassination.  

In fact, Rahul Gandhi can dig deeper and land up with the picture postcard of his granddad Jawaharlal Nehru lighting the lamp on Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 1959, in Nagore, signalling the commencement of Panchayat Raj in the country, backed by laws prepared and passed by each State Assembly in India. 

During his free time, when his throat becomes hoarse from shouting Chowkidar Chor Hai at myriad rallies, Rahul Gandhi can actually read Nehru's speech on this historic occasion that elaborated the reasons and imperatives for Panchayat Raj.

(Read this speech, and some others besides Nehru's writings on Panchayati Raj in "Jawaharlal Nehru on Community Development, Panchayati Raj & Cooperation,” issued by the Ministry of Community Development & Cooperation, 1965.)

He will find how, after Nehru's death in 1964, the idea of Panchayat Raj had withered away. It was revived only with the setting up of the National Development Council in 1977 and got a real boost when the high-powered Ashok Mehta committee on decentralization came up with the innovative idea of amending the Constitution.

(See Report of the Committee on Panchayati Raj Institutions, Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Department of Rural Development, August 1978 for the Draft Constitution amendment attached to Annexure 2, pp.208-12. The draft was prepared by the well-known jurist, L.M. Singhvi.)

It was Rahul Gandhi's dad Rajiv Gandhi who had picked up the suggestion a decade later to accord Constitutional status, sanction and sanctity to Panchayat Raj as the one sure way of ensuring grassroots development through democratically elected institutions of local-self government. 

In Rajiv Gandhi's mind, the express objective was to render Panchayat Raj ineluctable, irreversible and irremovable by bringing in what eventually evolved into the 64th amendment, introduced in the Lok Sabha on 15 May 1989. That amendment made it Constitutionally mandatory to have a democratically-elected three-tier Panchayat system accountable to Gram Sabhas comprising the entire adult population of all habitations in a village-level Panchayat.

(The 64th was defeated in the Rajya Sabha the same year when Rajiv Gandhi lost the general elections, too. The National Front introduced it again but the 9th Lok Sabha was dissolved. Eventually, the 73rd was passed in 1992 by the Narasimha Rao government, and came into force on April 24, 1993.)

Rahul Gandhi is justifiably proud of his dad's achievement. It is this that Congress' Punjab Minister for Rural Development and Panchayats Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa is out to attack now.

In Punjab, Rajiv Gandhi is remembered a little too often for his 'When a big tree falls' statement. It does no credit to Rahul Gandhi's party. What his party can claim with some pride is the ownership of the concept of Gram Sabha, Panchayati Raj via the 73rd and 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution, and the exertions in this regard of Rajiv Gandhi and people like LM Singhvi, Mani Shankar Aiyar and many others.

Instead, Congress is being slammed today for its Panchayat Minister Bajwa who says it is not possible to have Gram Sabhas, who claims there is not enough bureaucracy to ensure that the Constitutionally mandatory meetings are held, and who has made a shocking statement that demands for holding a meeting of the Gram Sabha comes only from villages with extreme level of factionalism.

So, here is what the Congress' Cabinet minister is saying:
That Gram Sabhas are impractical; 
that these are instruments of divisiveness; 
that these need too many state resources. 

A quick translation can also be that Rajiv Gandhi got it wrong, Dr Manmohan Singh was foolish, and Sonia or Rahul Gandhi do not understand a thing about pragmatic politics.

In the official records, however, every village in Punjab has held the required number of Gram Sabhas, and not one has missed it. Clearly, all these Gram Sabhas are held on paper, these are sham, and the minister is okay with continuing with a fraudulent system.

There must be better ways of burying the reputation of Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi with a single statement but so far, none has been able to match the effort and efficiency with which Hon'ble Shri Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa has done the hatchet job.

Narendra Modi went hammer and tongs after the MGNREGA scheme, calling it the utterly foolish project of the Congress party, but he has now reversed his position completely. This year, the Modi-Arun Jaitley-Piyush Goyal interim budget allocated a record Rs 60,000 crore for MGNREGA. But while not a single Congress leader in Punjab pointed out this about turn of Narendra Modi, the Punjab government is all set to nullify the panchayati raj framework conceived, designed and largely executed by the UPA.

In a shocking but clearly a very considered statement, this Congress minister has now declared that it is not possible to hold Gram Sabha meetings in Punjab's 13,175 villages. In a detailed interview in the Punjabi Tribune, Bajwa made a series of statements that reflected the thinking of this government being run as per Rahul Gandhi's guidance, as every second Punjab government advertisement tells us.

With general elections' announcement less than 50 days away, one expected Mr Tript Rajender Bajwa to point out that Modi's slogan of "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” was actually a rip-off from Rajiv Gandhi's "Maximum Democracy, Maximum Devolution,” but instead, he has called the entire Constitutional arrangement and the primacy accorded to the Gram Sabha a hogwash. 

Ironically, the Mani Shankar Aiyar committee's report that reviewed the first 20 years experience of the Panchayati Raj System following the Constitutional amendment, placed the entire burden of making it a success on the institution and proper functioning of the Gram Sabhas. 

It is possible that in his hurry to fight Sukhbir Singh Badal and elements within his own party, a section of the top police hierarchy and sundry other elements, all at the same time, Mr Bajwa may not have found the time to browse through the report "Towards Holistic Panchayat Raj - Twentieth Anniversary Report of the Expert Committee on Leveraging Panchayats For Efficient Delivery of Public Goods and Services," but any such endeavour won't hurt at all. 

(In fact, the report considered the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's perorations to the Lok Sabha and his interventions on the Bills that eventually became Parts IX and IXA of the Constitution, his speeches in Parliament on 15 May 1989, 8 August 1989 and 13 October 1989 so important that these were appended to the report - See Appendix 2).

Normally, one would expect a senior politician to immediately follow up on such goof-ups with the standard "My words have been twisted out of context" statement, but days after his fulminations against the Gram Sabha ignited a heated debate, the minister has done no such thing. This is commendable, though he is known to take his own sweet time for applying correctives.

Last time he made headlines was when he wanted a dope test for everyone thinking of contesting the panchayat elections. It took him weeks before saying he did not really mean what he said.

As pointed out by alert journalists, in the minister's own constituency in block Fatehgarh Chooriyan, a hundred odd villages have already held Gram Sabhas.  In village Ghurka of Fazilka, a social activist Navneet Singh is making much noise because he has found that an Anganwari worker was present in the Gram Sabha. Navneet does not have anything particular against the Anganwari worker except for the fact that this particular individual had actually died two months before the Gram Sabha was held! In CM Amarinder Singh's constituency, the village Dhanetha saw a Gram Panchayat being held on the very first day of November 2018, attended by 40 voters, including 25 women. Records show that panchayat secretary Praveen Kumar and two other government officials were also present. That no one in the village knows about it is a separate matter.

Meanwhile, another arm of the government, the State Institute for Rural Development (SIRD) is going full steam ahead with training plans for the newly elected panchayats. The agenda includes much stress on the importance of holding Gram Sabhas. Dr Rozy Vaid, who heads the SIRD, is pulling out all stops to use the social media platforms and designing e-learning modules, to train these elected representatives.

But why is the Minister for Panchayats in Punjab adamant on not fighting for the legacy that is a huge achievement of his own party? Instead, he is militating against this legacy.

Or is he actually pointing out a hard, cold reality that since most Gram Sabhas are being held only on paper, it is better to say it out, aloud and clearly, that the ground level situation has as yet not become conducive for such self-government? In that case, Bajwa should be launching a different fight altogether.
 
Or is it that the politicians have realised that a true Panchayati Raj System is a challenge to the system of politics as we know it?

Panchayat Raj in India has a long history going back into a millennial past but most conspicuously and perspicaciously articulated during the Freedom Movement by Mahatma Gandhi, specifically in "A Gandhian Constitution for Independent India," written by Shriman Narayan Agarwal, with a foreword by Gandhi himself in which he assures the reader that the ideas set out in the book are, indeed, his own. 
(A Gandhian Constitution for Independent India, Kitabistan, Allahabad, 1946, with a Foreword by Mahatma Gandhi) 

Eventually, it led to Article 40 of the Directive Principles of State Policy laying down the injunction that:
"The State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” 

Schedule 7 of the Constitution placed the operationalisation of this Article at Entry 5 of the State List (List II):
"Local government, that is to say, the constitution of powers of municipal corporations, improvement trusts, district boards, mining settlement authorities and other local authorities for the purpose of self-government or village administration.”

It may be noted that the "village panchayats”, referred to in Article 40, and the "local authorities” referred to in List II, are described as "units” of "self-government,” not "self-governance”.  

These constitute the origins of Article 243G of Part IX of the Constitution which refers to the three-tier Panchayat Raj system as "institutions of self-government,” not self-governance.

Our politicians know this. They know that a better run Panchayati Raj will throw up a new variety, a new breed, a new kind of politician. This is not just about self-governance in which the politicians can help. This is self-government. This is the real threat. Therefore, no one fact-checks a minister who says Gram Sabhas are not possible. His party president Sunil Jakhar who claims affinity with Rahul Gandhi stays silent. The opposition Akali Dal, always eager to fire retaliatory statements on even trivial issues, remains silent on this one. Even the Aam Aadmi Party does not stand up for the aam pendu aadmi on this one. 

So threatening is the idea of local self-government that it unites politicians of all hue. Self-government goes way beyond clichés like democratic devolution of powers. It is true democratic decentralisation.
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Governments want regular panchayat elections, but they do not want regular accountability of these panchayats to Gram Sabhas. They do not want democracy to become bottoms up. A top down approach puts the minister at the top, the other way around will put him at the end.

To revert to the track record, the Panchayati Raj review committee headed by Mani Shankar Aiyar, after noticing the politicians’ and officialdom’s scant regard for Gram Sabhas, suggested a "radical departure” and said the Centre must change the design of the Centrally Sponsored Schemes and ensure delivery of public goods and services by all line departments and parallel bodies through PRIs responsible only to Gram Sabhas, and must actually undertake Activity Mapping to ensure this.

In Chapter VI of its report, the committee advocated that Panchayats must not be seen as the lowest unit of government functioning "but an autonomous domain of self-government" and the focus has to be "on strengthening the Gram Sabha to function as a watchdog of representative democracy".

I am not too sure about Mr Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa's personal library at his home, or the record keeping and indexing at the Congress State Headquarters in Chandigarh's Sector 15 which Mr Bajwa does not find much time to visit because of his pressing engagements to take the agenda of the Congress party forward. Hence, for his quick reference, I am reproducing a sentence on Panchayati Raj, as given in the "National Common Minimum Programme” of the first UPA government, a document Mr Bajwa may actually have in his back pocket, considering his loyalty to Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, and his admiration for Dr Manmohan Singh: "The UPA government will ensure that the Gram Sabha is empowered to emerge as the foundation of Panchayati Raj.”
 

Then Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, giving away Rashtriya Gaurav Gram Sabha Awards

 
In Oct-Nov 2004, when Dr Manmohan Singh's PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat undertook an exercise to review the implementation of the PRI, this was the sentence on which stress was laid. 
(Read the testimony of Mr B.K. Chaturvedi, former Cabinet Secretary and later Member, Planning Commission before the Mani Shankar Aiyar Committee, given on 6 February, 2013.)

Under Dr Manmohan Singh, the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj actually drafted a "Model Panchayat and Gram Swaraj Act” but later, the Mani Shankar Aiyar Committee, widely hailed by Dr Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, actually proposed that the Centre draft an exclusive "Model Gram Sabha Act".
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Besides, the Union Ministry's guidelines on the subject say: "It is the bounden duty of the Gram Panchayats and Government officials to ensure that the Gram Sabhas function properly through close monitoring and mentoring of their meetings."
(Paragraph 20 of Secretary, Panchayati Raj’s circular No. J-11011/12/2009-Media dated 2.10.09, available on the Ministry’s website.)

Dr Manmohan Singh's government, in an effort to highlight the critical role of effective Gram Sabhas, declared 2010 as the Year of the Gram Sabha. Mr Bajwa seems to have a serious difference with that initiative, but he needs to explain it in a well researched paper in a peer reviewed journal.

Exactly 11 days after India marks the 100 years of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it will celebrate the National Panchayati Raj Day on April 24, 2019. Last year, on this day, Prime Minister Modi had launched a scheme ostensibly aimed at strengthening the Panchayati Raj system and addressing critical gaps that hinder its success. 

Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa should step back and think - Is he the critical gap between the vision of Nehru-Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul Gandhi and the current state of the panchayati raj system in Punjab?

CM Amarinder Singh is well aware of the legacy of the UPA. It is time he fact-checks his wayward ministers when they dither too far from the party line. In this case, it will be in national interest, too, that’s if his and Rahul Gandhi’s idea of national interest is congruent.
 
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