Which is why we are, where we are," says Mani Shankar Iyer, talking of panchayati raj and grassroots democracy. Vested interests continue to stand in the way of grassroots democracy; sections of the higher bureaucracy, for instance, and great number of politicians.
So, where are we? The answer to that is: "Though the Panchayat Raj institutions have been in existence for a long time, it has been observed that these institutions have not been able to acquire status and dignity of viable and responsive people's bodies due to a number of reasons including absence of regular elections, prolonged supersession, insufficient representation of weaker sections like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and women, inadequate devolution of powers and lack of financial resources."
That was from the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992. Since then a lot of water has flown down the Yamuna. Today, Iyer, who was panchayati raj minister in UPA-I and had brought out what he calls as "My Report" on panchayati raj, would lay the blame on "10 years of unresponsive role of the UPA at the Centre" and on a complete lack of finesse in "last mile delivery", mainly because power has not devolved to the gram sabha and panchayat but has been hijacked by the collector-BDO-clerk axis.
Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted when it comes to local self-government. Power to the people, Swaraj or self-rule was his caller-tune. Pitted against Gandhi was B R Ambedkar, who saw caste-ridden villages as cesspools of poison. Wajahat Habibullah, who was the first secretary of a revived Panchayati Raj ministry, in 2004, says self-government has largely succeeded, and equates this to the triumph of democracy.
"We have succeeded in creating self-governing autonomous institutions at the village and district level. It all boiled down to funds, functions and functionaries. Funds have to be generated locally, functions have to clearly delineated and functionaries have to identified. We have come a long way," he says.
So-called modern-day Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, when campaigning for the Delhi assembly elections, spoke of the "mohalla committee", which is nothing but a panchayat in an urban setting. The argument is that only people at the "grassroots" would know their problems, and would strive to solve them to their satisfaction.
The problem is local self-government never became part of continuous discourse. Jawaharlal Nehru gave it prime place. But after his death it went dormant. The Left when it came to power in West Bengal gave it top billing, and panchayats in West Bengal brought tremendous change to the social and economic milieu. "Panchayats made a big contribution. If you ask whether India is a democracy because of local-self government, I would say yes it is," says D Raja, CPI MP.
Local self-government also got a shot in the arm when Rajiv Gandhi came to power. He held forth what Iyer calls "Rajivian solutions" to problems of poverty. "Go back to Rajiv Gandhi's principles," is today Iyer's ring-tune. But for all his loyalty to the Gandhi family, Iyer squarely blames the UPA, of which Sonia Gandhi is chairperson, for the current state of panchayati raj institutions. "The lacuna," says Iyer, "is that 60-90% of funds for local self-government comes from Delhi, for the implementing the centrally-sponsored schemes... The key to self-governance at the grassroots, then, lies in the hands of the Centre which has not lived up to its responsibilities."
That lacuna is seen where panchayats exist, where panchayat elections take place and where panchayat members do get to hold meetings. What about the Kashmir, where panchayats face terror threats? What about central India, where Maoists rule the roost? What about the northeast? In these areas, problems of internal security ride roughshod, and democracy and development then is held at gunpoint, miles away.
Those who hold up panchayats, however, do not need guns. Caste and religion and gender come in handy. The Institute of Rural Management Anand's "State of Panchayats Report 2008-09" brings this out succinctly: "In many places, particularly at the gram panchayat and intermediate panchayat levels, seating is segregated along gender and caste lines. The insensitivity, indifference, vested interests, abusive language and non-cooperation of other elected representative functionaries and officials were also largely common... Casteist practices are endemic and afflicts even government officials of higher levels who are duty-bound to counter them."
Proxy representation is another blot. Husbands, political parties and upper caste men are the worst offenders. Personal factors such as low socioeconomic status, illiteracy or low levels of education, inadequate information, lack of political affiliation and association and lack of experience are barriers that keep proxy representation alive, and thriving.
Given the shadow cast by caste, which is perhaps the most "debilitating personal factor for men and women alike", it will take much more than holding panchayat elections or the general elections for that matter to bring about grassroots democracy. Till then, democracy remains a word to which too many of us have taken a fancy to. And swear by.