Last month, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the landmark legislation on Panchayati Raj Institutions in India. The sweeping reforms were commended for their scale of ambition. However, as with any other reform idea aimed at overhauling the political system, local governments should not be seen as a panacea. Implemented wrong, local governments can lead to deeper social and political schisms amongst communities. One of the key articles of faith in Gram Panchayats is its ability to ensure equitable distribution of benefits. While there are many areas of debate one can pick in the performance of the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the question for this column is the effects of political party affiliation and its divisive consequences.
Take the example of West Bengal. The Panchayati Raj System in the state was revived in 1978, a year after the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI-M) came to power in the state, following nearly a decade of intense political violence. Along with holding elections that year and every five years, subsequently, the state government also put in place, some of the features that we today recognize to be key to an empowered Gram Panchayat – control over resources, provision of public services, the lower-level bureaucracy, etc. Observers point out that in the early years following decentralization reforms, the lot of the poor actually improved through a steady improvement in agriculture, mostly driven by the land tenure reforms that were enacted earlier. In the interiors of the state, there are districts that are poorer than elsewhere in the country.
Simultaneously, one of the constants of political mobilization at the grassroots in West Bengal has been the thorough politicization of Gram Panchayats. Households are identified by their political party affiliations and this influences the allocation of public goods – not just individual benefits such as food grains, pensions or housing, but also crucial services such as law and order and protection of property. While this may well be inevitable given the increasing flow of finances to the Gram Panchayats, it is obvious that in situations like West Bengal, where political parties have encouraged ‘destructive political competition’, the consequences of this can easily spiral down to individual households due to the intense political mobilization at the grassroots.
The directive that panchayat elections are not to be fought on the basis of political party affiliations has been discarded for all practical purposes – not just in West Bengal, but in any state with a functioning system of local government. In the Panchayati polls in the state in 2008, where the Trinamool Congress for the first time in close to three decades, wrested away nearly half the Gram Panchayats from the CPI(M) – early signs of the groundswell in favour of the former. Trinamool followed this up with favourable shows in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the sweeping victory in the 2011 assembly polls. Over the last decade, as a successful political challenge was mounted by Trinamool on the CPI(M), often using the same tactics that CPI(M) was known for, the polarization on the ground has sharpened, to the detriment of the welfare of ordinary citizens in rural West Bengal. There are many a personal account of development workers in rural West Bengal that narrate the despair of households who are unable to approach the police for justice, for fear of retribution from an opposing political party. Of course, in many instances, the police have refused to even lodge complaints of families that are not affiliated with the ruling party.
It is important to recognize this for what it is – political rivalry at the state-level trickles down following the existing pattern of political mobilization. Gram Panchayats, instead of absorbing the impact of this conflict while shielding citizens, become instruments of state control and oppression.
What does this mean for the idea of local governance in India? Should we be wary of political mobilization at a scale such as in West Bengal? Researchers have argued that in deeply feudal societies in northern India, the shift in allegiance to political parties may itself been seen as a sign of progress. But are there limits to this phenomenon? How have Kerala or Karnataka been different, if at all? These are important questions that need to be posed and explored further – as we reaffirm our faith in the developmental benefits that accrue from Panchayati Raj Institutions.
A version of this first appeared on livemint, titled Panchayati raj challenges