Why we are indebted to Rajiv Gandhi
His Panchayati Raj reforms were about giving grassroots people a stake in governance; the reservation for women in local bodies was a big step towards their empowerment
A transfer of power was not the only goal of the freedom struggle, as Mahatma Gandhi saw it—merely transferring power from one set of sahibs to another could not, he knew, bring true Swaraj (self-rule). He was committed, therefore, to the task of building an India where the weakest would have a voice in shaping their future, their destiny, where every Indian would have a voice in the decision-making process.
In order to increase this participation, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, laid the foundations of the first elected panchayat in Nagaur district on 2 October 1959. He simultaneously began the process of decentralising economic and social power through cooperatives.
But panchayat elections were not held regularly. And, Rajiv strongly felt the deep imbalance of power. Nearly a billion people were represented by only a few hundred MPs and a few thousand MLAs. The middlemen who flourished in this power structure kept people's participation at bay.
To free the common people from such bondage, he introduced the 64th Constitutional Amendment. It aimed at ensuring governance not by the socially dominant classes, but by lakhs of people in rural and urban localities. The purpose was to let power corridors echo the voices of people’s natural conscience.
Centralized structures around the world were collapsing. In our own country, Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Ji had warned in his last statement in the Constituent Assembly that political equality of one person-one vote will not last long without eliminating social and economic disparities. Inequality of opportunities in political participation will breed despair, helplessness, anger and alienation.
When Rajivji took the initiative, politico-social aspirations were building up in many groups. Uneasiness was increasing and it was very important to connect different communities with the political process. His proposals did not get full support then, but later his inspiration led to the passage of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments.
It was Rajivj Gandhiji’s initiative that, amid our patriarchal social structure, first ensured one-third and then 50 percent reservation for women in panchayats and urban local bodies. The Dalits, Adivasis, and Backward Classes too got definite representation. This was a big step forward to eradicate politico-social inequality.
At the same time, new political awakening was taking place among the Dalit communities in Uttar Pradesh. Reservations ensured that these communities got an opportunity to participate in democracy. In the Chambal ravines, voices of groups responding to social oppression with the violent might of guns were pacified by inducing non-violent surrenders in the ‘70s. But the Panchayats gave such oppressed groups an opportunity for positive participation and took them away from violence forever. Later on, the expansion of Panchayats in the Scheduled Areas through the "PESA" Act of 1996 gave the people community rights to water, forests and land.
Throughout his tenure, Rajiv Ji worked to make democracy inclusive. For this, he took the initiative to make a pact with the separatist forces and invited them to join the democratic process. For this, he rose above party politics. After the Mizo Treaty, he got the government of his own party to resign and go for fresh elections so that new groups could join the democratic process. That’s how the people of Mizoram came to adopt democracy.
Today, when we see the ruling dispensation at the Centre engaging in horse-trading to bring down elected governments, then we invariably remember Rajiv Ji. He knew very well that the younger generation happened to be anti-establishment. Many of his colleagues advised him against it, yet he wanted to give voting rights to the eighteen-year-old youth so that the comfortably placed elite class could be challenged… the status-quo could be challenged. He did not consider protest as rebellion. Neither did he deem voices against the ruling class as sedition.
Decisions should be taken by the class which gets affected by the decisions the most. Today the Centre is rejecting the concept of India being a union of states. The rights of the states are being taken away. States are even disintegrated without the consent of their legislature. Kashmir is an example.
Local bodies were to be developed into the third-tier of government by upholding the sovereignty of the Gram Sabhas, but those have been reduced to mere cosmetic existence. In tribal areas, all rights of Gram Sabhas are being snatched away. It is true that public representatives of local bodies need to exercise political power, but the training process has stopped.
Despite several odds, many panchayat sarpanch and members have changed ground reality through innovation. To take democracy deeper, it is necessary to make an association of Panchayat representatives. How can anyone accuse them of corruption? It is an irony that in order to manage defections, MLAs of a state are offered hospitality at a five-star hotel in a flood-hit state and then comes the announcement to end corruption from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Remember that the destruction of democracy with money is nothing but corruption.
It may be recalled that the legal provision against bribery was also made during the tenure of Rajiv Ji. On his birth anniversary on August 20, he will always be remembered as a champion of democratic inclusion, accountability and transparency.
(The writer is a former Member of the Lok Sabha. Translated from Hindi by Shrikant Asthana)