Rajiv Gandhi and his vision of democracy in India

Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative sought to take governance down to people, including the disadvantaged, to make them responsible for consolidating rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution

Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest Prime Minister of India, gave democracy at the grassroots a whole new meaning by ushering in Panchayati Raj in the country.
Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest Prime Minister of India, gave democracy at the grassroots a whole new meaning by ushering in Panchayati Raj in the country.

Wajahat Habibullah

Nehru’s political quest had convinced him that, “The questions that a country puts are a measure of that country’s political development. Often the failure of that country is due to the fact that it has not put the right question to itself ”. Rajiv Gandhi sought to make this conviction real through institutionalising public participation in governance.

Hitherto, government at the Centre had assumed special responsibility towards protecting the vulnerable among caste and tribe, and the government in each State was expected to act proactively providing all sections of the community access to strong legal remedy extant in the system, enabling them to address specific forms of exclusion and protection of their rights of citizenship. This is the principle underlying the constitutional authority of the Centre to declare areas as Scheduled, thus protecting the land rights of the tribal.

Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative sought to take governance down to the people, including the disadvantaged, an initiative consummated only after his passing, to make them responsible for consolidating rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. This was to become his personal legacy to the nation although its final form was not entirely in sync with the expanse of his own vision, as we shall see.

Education, which under the Constitution is a Concurrent subject, with technical and higher education being assigned to the Union List was the key. He had, with the establishment of the first Indian Institute of Technology in 1951 in Kharagpur, which in September 1956 was declared an Institute of National Importance under the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act initiated a revolution in higher education. There followed four campuses with the locations chosen to provide access to north, east, west and south. The Assam agitation, which exploded in 1979 led by disaffected students ended with the Assam Accord in 1986, that included prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s promise of the creation of a new IIT in Assam, which materialised only after Rajiv’s untimely demise with a sixth campus at Guwahati in 1994

But Jawaharlal Nehru, apostle of the scientific temper, realised that India’s people needed to be equipped with a modern education from the school level. Therefore, the Kendriya Vidyalayas Sangathan was established in December 1963 to network a system of central government schools across the country. The Secretary appointed to head the Ministry was Anil Bordia, an IAS officer without peer from the Rajasthan cadre. With nearly 2000 Kendriya Vidyalayas Rajiv had inherited what was already one of the world's largest chains of schools.

But Rajiv’s confrontation with the stark realities of poverty led to his mulling over why privileged access such as his own could not be widened. Thus was born the idea of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas. Conceived and directed by none other than himself, the concept of opening a JNV in every district of India became part of a National Policy on Education of 1986, with the aim of providing excellence coupled with social justice to all sections of young Indians.

These schools were to be modelled on India’s Public Schools, residential schools to which admission would be made for 11 year olds into Class VI through tests conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education, set in spacious 30 acre premises in bucolic hinterlands, never in urban conglomerates. They continue to provide two streams among Science, Arts and Commerce for Class XI and XII and have earned a reputation for academic excellence, which can be attributed to their merit-based entrance test and the unique climate provided for otherwise disadvantaged children, a reputation which is borne out by their performance in board examinations.

A Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) was registered with the target of one JNV in every district. It began with two Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas established in 1985–86, at Jhajjar (Haryana) and Amravati (Maharashtra). JNVs were sanctioned for 576 districts. Of JNVs sanctioned especially in districts with a large population of Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes (SC), one was in tribal Minicoy in the distant island archipelago of Lakshadweep where I was appointed Administrator. There were two special JNVs in the troubled north-eastern state of Manipur, bringing the total number of sanctioned JNVs to 598. In November 2016, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the opening of one JNV in each of the 62 uncovered districts thus bringing to its consummation what was Rajiv’s own best loved initiative.

Amongst Navodaya Vidyalaya alumni there have been outstanding sportsmen, cinema showmen, authors, political leaders, mountaineers among whom was Bihar’s Ravindra Kumar, the first IAS officer and former seaman to stand atop Mt Everest, and soldiers including Lt Ummer Fayaz Parrey of the JNV, Anantnag born in a village in Kulgam who was commissioned in the Indian army in 2016 only to give his life to his nation in the cruel relapse into violence that convulsed Kashmir in May 2017. Responding to the question “Is life good in JNV?” in a Whatsapp group one former student Himanshu Bisht, now teacher of Computer Science and Blogger who had studied Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics and Computer Science in a JNV exclaimed on August 4, 2018, “Oh, No. It was not good. It was freaking beautiful. It was a heaven on earth .”

A poor nation

Yet, the greatest challenge, recognised by Mrs Gandhi who made the need to address it the pivot of her 1971 election triumph with the slogan garibi hatao, was India’s unacceptable level of poverty. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Rajiv Gandhi’s Economic Advisor, describes in his forthcoming book Rajiv’s distress at coming face to face with naked poverty as he raced in his Jonga Jeep across tribal countryside in Kalahandi and Phulbani districts of Odisha. Ahluwalia writes, “He had expected to see poverty, but as he told us later, he was not prepared for the ineffectiveness of the government programmes that were meant to help the rural poor.”

It was shortly after the Kalahandi visit that Rajiv Gandhi made the much reported observation that out of every rupee spent by the government to help the rural poor, only 15 paisa actually reached the target. But this observation rested not on Rajiv’s assessment of corruption levels in government, which many construe as reference, but on his realisation of massive expenses involved in servicing a bureaucratic structure to administer poverty alleviation. Ahluwalia tells us that an empirical study a few years thereafter supervised by the very well known economist Kirit Parikh, to calculate the percentage of the funds spent on the Public Distribution System that actually reached the poor, came up with 16 paise as best estimate, remarkably close to Rajiv's assessment.


During Rajiv’s early years as prime minister, his hopes of coming to grips with the problem of poverty were balked by a cause well outside his control. Agriculture expert Dr Yogendra Alagh, member of the then Planning Commission and a key adviser to Rajiv on drought relief, recounts the 1987 drought recalling that the government focused on a massive rural employment guarantee programme to put money into the hands of farmers, apart from digging bore wells and installing pump sets to provide water for drinking and for crops. Rajiv was willing to spend massive amounts of money to subsidise seed distribution and transport of fodder through programmes that Alagh describes, particularly those works designed to generate labour, which were monitored closely at the field level by Rajiv himself touring affected areas, accompanied always by steadfast but silent Sonia.

Making democracy real

Rajiv Gandhi credited his grandfather Nehru with laying the foundation of parliamentary democracy. By 1988 when proposals for PRIs entered the public domain, Rajiv had already brought about radical reform in democratic polity. This was done by addressing the incubus of defection that had beset Indian polity across states. As early as March 1967 in a note to prime minister Indira Gandhi on the onset of a political crisis in DP Mishra’s government in Madhya Pradesh, her Principal Secretary PN Haksar had warned “One understands conscientious objection. One understands that some people have certain political principles and for that reason they cannot vote for a given party’s policies. But in our country crossing of the floor does not appear to be governed by any higher principle than seeking of office.” Haksar’s advice went unheeded then and the consequences were exactly as the wise Pandit had foretold. It was left to Rajiv to bring the 52nd amendment that inserted the 10th Schedule to the Constitution, popularly referred to as the ‘Anti-Defection Law,' in 1985. The Supreme Court in two definitive judgements then settled the issue of what would constitute the member ‘voluntarily' giving up of membership of a party, and the full import of Sec 2 (1) (b) wherein voting/abstention from voting against the party is mentioned: Ravi Naik vs. Union of India and Rajendra Singh Rana vs. Swami Prasad Maurya and Others

Rajiv then pursued inclusion of India’s burgeoning youth curve in the body politic. In keeping with his objective of expanding public participation in the democratic process the 61st Amendment of the Constitution of India, the Constitution (Sixty-first Amendment) Act, 1988, was adopted in March 1989 lowering the voting age of elections to the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies from 21 years to 18. “The present-day youth,” says the law in its Statement of Objects and Reasons, “are very much politically conscious. It is, therefore, proposed to reduce the voting age from 21 years to 18 years.”

In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s government created the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, an autonomous organisation under the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports, part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development within the Government of India. Its objectives were concise: to involve the rural youth in nation-building and to develop such skills and values in them with which they become responsible and productive citizens of a modern, secular and technologically advanced nation. The Sangathan had by 1990 already established 400 youth clubs. Today there are 623. By the close of his premiership, the Sangathan had submitted to the prime minister a draft National Technology Mission of the Youth to work in tandem with his innovative resuscitation of Panchayati Raj. But Rajiv was never to return to office.

Panchayati Raj

The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee had made elaborate recommendations in 1957 for creating a three tiered structure. But erudite jurist LM Singhvi, in reviewing the consequences of that Committee’s report recognised that “lack of public involvement and participation began to be perceived as an impediment in the successful implementation of the Community Development and National Extension Service Programmes.” As prime minister, Rajiv quested incessantly for means of ensuring public participation in governance, he turned first to the district administration and office of Collector, which was what he considered the cutting edge of the administration.

Rajiv’s field visits and the feedback from concurrent evaluation of the twenty point programme that targeted poverty helped convince him that government’s rural development programmes would not eliminate poverty unless there was much greater local partnership and ownership. In his meetings in 1988 with district collectors in different parts of the country to elicit their views on this, he addressed each of these meetings, urging the district collectors to speak freely and share their views on how the system could be strengthened. The PM also asked if the Panchayat Raj institutions (PRIs) should be given Constitutional status. Many district collectors declared in favour. Although a draft Constitution Amendment Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha, it failed in the Rajya Sabha. Then the Congress led government, headed by successor Narasimha Rao, which came to power in 1991, following Rajiv’s tragic death, brought the necessary amendments to the Constitution. Thus the meetings with Collectors became the launching pad that concluded with the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments that crowned local government with constitutional fiat. Regional meetings were followed by a conference of chief ministers and majority of them finally supported Rajiv.

Rajiv lamented that the total number of elected representatives in India including both MPs and MLAs was about 60,000 thus accessible to only a few influential members of the public. For a majority of India’s 800 million, the access was only through hard boiled bureaucracy. To explore alternatives, Rajiv set up a Committee on Revitalisation of Panchayati Raj Institutions for Democracy and Development in 1986, under the Chairmanship of Dr L.M. Singhvi, the eminent jurist. The Singhvi Committee Report, recommended that the PRIs should be given Constitutional status, assuring free, fair and regular elections overseen by the Election Commission of India, legal protection from executive subversion through the institution of a Panchayati Raj Judicial Tribunal in each State with access to ‘adequate financial resources’.

Rajiv bought into the idea that essential to democracy in India was a third tier of elected government, at the basic level of administration that gave voice to all sections of the people, in addition to the tiers of democracy represented by the union and state governments. Government’s thrust since the ‘70s had been towards Poverty Alleviation –bureaucracy led governance had also seen heavy leakage. Rajiv certainly saw the bureaucrat of the future as a facilitator. he was convinced that good governance must be participatory, transparent and accountable. Rajiv Gandhi believed that restructuring the system of government in this way would make the administration much more responsible to the elected representatives and would increase local ownership and participation in development programmes.

The consequence was the decentralisation of governance through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution of 1993, making Panchayat Raj, an instrument of local self-government, a constitutional imperative. Gram Sabhas, designed to be the font of the country’s legislative framework make every citizen a legislator.

Why did this new threshold, with the public leading development instead of the bureaucracy not materialise? In the ‘70s, the Union government had created the Small Farmers Development Agencies (SFDAs), which were intended to channelise Union budget money directly to districts, thence to the Blocks bypassing State Budgets. These were special service vehicles designed for a specific purpose. The SFDA's morphed into the District Rural Development Agencies in 1979. With the 73rd Amendment, it became quickly clear that the DRDAs were now obstructing the growth of the panchayats at three levels, by encroaching into the constitutionally and legally devolved powers of the Zilla Parishads. The V Ramachandran Committee was set up by the Ministry of Rural Development to look at the role and relevance of the DRDAs following the enactment of the 73rd amendment recommended abolition and merger of DRDAs with the ZPs. The then minister Jairam Ramesh approved. But the file was held up in the Ministry, which steadfastly withstood implementing the order, till the government changed.

This should answer the question as to what became of Rajiv’s vision of instituting local self government. The father of our nation Mahatma Gandhi had this dream of India on winning freedom: "Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or Panchayat having full powers. It follows therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world." Rajiv Gandhi had the same dream. But as I write, the DRDAs are alive and kicking. Chair men of Zilla Parishads have been co-opted to chair or participate in DRDA meetings, but their accounts are not part of the ZP accounts.

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