Jawaharlal Nehru and Panchayats

By Madhavan K. Palat

Nehru talked of panchayats as if they were bureaucracies, imagining them as elected civil servants rather than political leaders. He wanted “real power to be in the hands of the people” but also that “they must be trained in governance”.

Jawaharlal Nehru restlessly sought to provide Indian democracy with a firm and unshakeable base. The Constitution supplied the framework, Parliament and State legislatures stood as the superstructure, and adult suffrage ensured the possibility of universal participation. 

But this edifice lacked an institutional foundation in the villages. Should the top falter, the base would subside. That deficiency would be made up by the village council or panchayat. Electoral democracy would be triple layered — the panchayat at the bottom, the State legislature above it, and Parliament at the apex. But Nehru did not seem to be able to decide whether the panchayat was a political body or a bureaucratic committee.

He sometimes spoke of panchayats as if they were to be political leaders in their domain, but the Constitution had not provided for them and he did not move to correct that omission. He imagined them representing the nation in the manner that Parliament and State legislatures did. In 1951, he expressed the hope that panchayats in Madhya Bharat “can rise above parochial feelings and think of larger issues and the service of the country.”

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution did provide for autonomous districts and regions which he considered “a very wise provision”. They had been formed in the Northeast and he expected them to do well when they could raise finances through taxation. This was the Soviet pattern, with its political hierarchy going from the Union through the Union Republics (the equivalent of Indian States) to the Autonomous Republics; but panchayats were clearly not comparable to even the last of these.

Trained to govern

Nehru claimed to “want real power to be in the hands of the people in villages and districts and states” but that “they must first understand and be trained in the principles of governance and then play an active role in governing the country.” The properly political entities like the District Councils did not seem to need instruction, but the panchayats evidently did.

However, training suggests bureaucracy, not political leadership. Nehru, in many ways, talked of panchayats as if they were bureaucracies: he would delegate power to them, he was decentralising through them, certain administrative duties were to be transferred to them, and they were to “help” because the government “cannot do everything”. In effect, he imagined them as elected civil servants rather than as political leaders like himself. Like centralising states since the 16th century elsewhere in the world, Nehru was providing for an elected village and municipal bureaucracy to complement the bureaucracy of state which could not enter into the minutiae of local life.

Consistently enough, he was eloquent about the panchayat doubling up as a local planning committee, the analogue of the Planning Committees in the States and of the Planning Commission in Delhi. It was the best informed on local conditions and priorities and presumably, therefore, more effective than experts sent down from the capitals. But he regarded them as sources of information rather than as planners in any meaningful sense of the term, even at a subordinate level. He acknowledged that planning proceeded vertically from above, and he regretted that as a result planners knew little of local and everyday needs, about wells, tanks, roads, bridges, schools, dispensaries and so on. The remedy lay in involving the panchayats at this humble level and urging them even to organise voluntary labour for development; he assigned them administrative tasks like conducting crop competitions to raise productivity, and described these initiatives as democratic and “revolutionary”. He informed them that they were “participants in administration”, “shareholders in the task of administration”, and much more along that order.

Nehru’s taking “our democracy to its grassroots through Panchayat Raj” was akin to democracy being distributed like financial subsidies, a democratic boon to the bottom of the power hierarchy. He always spoke of “granting” panchayats and co-operatives financial powers and associating them in the process of planning to “strengthen the development programme”.

This might explain why he imagined the panchayat as a space for non-party democracy. It was not strictly political after all. Party politics entailed demagoguery, populism, corruption, sleaze, oligarchies, and debilitating competition. He hoped to create a clearing in the jungle or an oasis in the desert with such Rousseauvian direct democracy, with Gandhi to stir him and Jayaprakash Narayan to urge him on. From as early as 1950, he was reminding people like his sister, diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, or U.N. Dhebar, the Congress president, of the corruption of party politics in panchayats; and in 1960, he even instructed the Congress to participate in the panchayats, but not as a party, which must have bewildered his followers. As if to round it all off, in the course of celebrating the panchayat achievement in 1963, he warned of the dangers inherent in democracy and of the tendency of power to corrupt.

Subordinate bureaucracy

He was afflicted by the doubt that panchayats might become adjuncts to the regular bureaucracy. He regularly informed his rural public that officials were there only to help not to command. But the function of bureaucracies is not to help anybody but to impose order and stability; and the frequency of Nehru’s reassurance reflects his justified suspicion that officials acted as superiors, not facilitators, as he fondly hoped. In effect, panchayats constituted a subordinate bureaucracy.

It was democracy constructed downward, like bureaucracy, which may appear wholly opposed to the democratic logic of assertion from below. That argument is persuasive, but there are large counter-examples: America imposed democracy on Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan after their defeat in World War II, and it has endured. Revolutions from above have been more frequent, with Stalin and Mao providing the most recent examples. Nehru’s pursuit of both democracy and revolution from above were not necessarily futile, contrary though it might have been to many theories of these processes.

He was providing a democratic carapace to a bureaucratic extension by employing the reigning language of power, Democracyspeak, as it were. While he always described panchayats as democratic by virtue of their being elected, he clubbed their work with the social service of the Bharat Sevak Samaj, the self-help of the co-operatives, the small-scale enterprise of cottage industry, and generally of constructive action, community development, and even village handicraft. They approximated to the NGOs soon to come, neither bureaucracy nor political leadership but a supporting actor to both at their respective extremities in village and municipality.

What began as an attempt to extend the parliamentary system ended by providing a handmaiden to both parliament and bureaucracy along with a patrician’s homily on the danger of power passing into the hands of those unfit to exercise it. True to himself, JP disparaged the panchayat as an imposition from above. It could be considered a deepening of democracy to the extent of its expanding the space for an active citizenry, as must happen with volunteer citizen groups, but in Nehru’s mind, it did not rise above that.

Suffocating power

Nehru claimed that parliament and democracy were set on the tradition of the panchayats of ancient India. He drew on European socialist traditions also, especially of British and German social democracy with their impressive research on local government, and perhaps on the early Russian revolutionary experience until 1920 with the councils or soviets which bequeathed that word to the name of the ensuing republic. Gandhi inspired; but he focused on the village at the expense of state structures; and the anarchistic JP was wary of the suffocating power of the state. Nehru however was a state builder and he integrated local democratic bodies to the parliamentary system above, all regarded cumulatively as institutions of State.

But Nehru, as usual, appeared on both sides of the argument. Along with others like the conservative K.M. Munshi or the radical Ambedkar, he feared that caste and class tyranny could flourish in the guise of village democracy. He had said so in his  Glimpses of World History but he did not revert to that awkward insight subsequently. However, he did not pose the problem as a choice between bureaucracy and democracy. He regarded them as complementary; if bureaucracy was to penetrate the last village, so should democracy; and whatever the risks, they were worth taking and facing.

The writer is the editor of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Courtesy: The Hindu

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