October 2001 marks the beginning of Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) centenary year. Long regarded as one of the tallest leaders of our freedom struggle, JP, founder of the Congress Socialist Party, took sanyas from politics soon after the first elections and dedicated himself to the Sarvodaya movement. Years later, deeply disturbed by the deteriorating trends in our democratic polity, he launched the Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) movement, was imprisoned during the Emergency, and on his release help found the Janata Party.
We reproduce below extracts from his seminal essay, ‘A Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity’, written for the Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh (Kashi) in 1959. Even four decades hence, its relevance for the ongoing discussion on electoral and political reforms remain undimmed.
I PROPOSE in this paper to describe the main outline of the polity which to my mind is not only most suited for us but also most rational and scientific, with a brief statement of the reasons for my views.
I have pleaded for our present political institutions to be based on the principles that had been enunciated and practised in the ancient Indian polity because (a) I believe that would be in line with the natural course of social evolution and (b) those principles are more valid from the point of view of social science than any others.
Present western polity is based upon an atomized society, the state being made up of an inorganic sum of individuals. This is both against the social nature of man and the scientific organization of society. Ancient Indian polity was much more consistent with both these.
Let me make clear that this paper is not a treatise on democracy or government. I am dealing here with a practical and immediate question: what should be the principles and form of Indian polity at the present time.
I have not looked at this question from the point of view of any readymade preconceptions and have avoided giving any label to the views expressed here. Even the phrase, communitarian, is reluctantly used, because a descriptive term sometimes becomes unavoidable. My search here has been for the forms of social life, particularly of political life, that would assure the preservation of human values about which there is hardly any dispute in the world today, and my approach has been non-partisan and non-sectarian.
My colleagues in the Sarvodaya movement might miss the word ‘Sarvodaya’ in this paper. But, I hope they will recognize that the goal of this enquiry is nothing else but the ultimate good and rise of all. At the same time, I should like to remind them that I am not concerned here with the ultimate state of things, but with the next immediate step towards a better way of life. Furthermore, my enquiry has been mainly confined to the political field.
On the very portals of democracy – irrespective of its form and structure – are words written that can never be wiped off without wiping off democracy itself. No kind of democracy can exist without the democratic freedoms – freedom of conscience, of association, of expression – and the rule of law. Where these freedoms do not exist, nor the rule of law, there can be no democracy. For my enquiry here I take these words as axiomatic and inscribe them in bold letters on the doorway before entering the house of Indian democracy.
If our present political institutions are to be soundly based, if they are to draw sustenance from Indian soil and, in turn, are to sustain, revive and strengthen the whole fabric of Indian society, they must be related to the social genius of India described above, and their texture must be woven again with an organically self determining, self developing communal life in which occupations, professions and functions are integrated with the community.
This is not only a question of constitutional forms or political systems. It is a creative question in the widest sense of the term. It is a question of an ancient country finding its lost soul again.
The old village communities have survived in nothing else than their physical existence. They are no longer living communities acting jointly for the solution of individual or communal problems and for the development of their moral and material life. It is not necessary here to go into the story of the destruction of the village communities. It would be enough to note that it was a result of the deliberate policy of an alien government that neither understood the character of a communitarian polity nor felt secure in the presence of such strong traditions of self government and self help. Nevertheless, the very fact that the villages do exist physically provides us with a readymade foundation to build upon.
A word that figures boldly on the ancient signpost is dharma. Indian polity held that the state was subject to the rule of dharma, which it was its duty to uphold and protect. The concept of dharma was of great importance in ancient India; it prescribed and regulated individual and group behaviour in all walks of life.
This concept of dharma and its role in Indian polity and the wider life of society is another example of that synthetic, organic, communal organization of India society which has been discussed above. Communities, territorial or functional, had developed laws and codes of behaviour to regulate the internal life of their communities and groups and their relations with the rest of society. There were in addition codes and laws that were common to and accepted by all of them and that made up the universal social ethics. The ensemble of these social ethics exercised a powerful influence over the state.
Communal life having been completely destroyed, the roots of dharma have no soil from which to draw sustenance. Dharma has therefore declined and ceased to exercise any influence not only upon the present polity, which is a wholly foreign implantation and has no roots in the India soil, but upon all social activities such as commerce, education, labour, administration, priesthood. Unless life in India is again organized on the basis of self-determining and mutually coordinating and integrating communities, that organic self-regulation of society, which the concept of dharma represented, will not be possible. To that extent democracy will remain distantly removed from the life of the people. Vinobaji is already speaking, for instance, of a gram dharma (the dharma of the village). But gram dharma will not arise, as he has stressed, unless the village becomes a community. Only then will it be possible for the village to adopt as its dharma the welfare of all the villagers so that none goes without food, clothing, a roof over his head, work to do; no child goes without a knowledge of the three R’s; none goes without the benefit of a minimum health service.
The ancient concept of dharma has to be revived and the appropriate dharma for a democracy has to be evolved. This, as of old, will not be brought about by a legislative process. It can be done only in an organic manner: dharma must arise from life itself – life that is vital enough, real enough, organic enough to be able to throw up codes and laws for its internal regulation. The experience of recent social engineering may and should be drawn upon, but the main mould of life must be indigenous and consistent with the genius of Indian social organization.
I believe it would be fair to say that even the most ardent defenders of parliamentary democracy agree that it has serious defects. But they console themselves with the thought (a) that there is no better alternative; and (b) that, within limits, it is possible to amend and improve it. No one will deny that the system is capable of much improvement and it is undergoing change all the time, though not always for the better. But no matter how much improved, its fundamental defects will yet remain because they are the very premises on which its entire structure has been raised.
The fundamental defect, from which other serious defects arise, is that this form of democracy is based on the vote of the individual. We have already examined this situation and found that it is the atomization of society that is responsible for this kind of political system. But that does not alter the fact that the system is based on a false premise; the state cannot be an arithmetical sum of individuals. The people, the nation, the community can never be equated with the sum of individual voters.
The partisans of parliamentary democracy claim that under it the government is at least representative of the majority of the voters, if not of the people. First of all, this is not true. More often than not it is commonly believed that governments elected under universal adult suffrage are minority governments, in the sense that they represent a minority of the voters. Wherever there are more than two parties, this happens quite often, but even under two party systems it is not a rare phenomenon. At the last general election in this country, for instance, minority governments were established in a majority of the states, i.e., in seven out of the thirteen states, excluding Union Territories.
It will not do to brush aside, as it has been done in this country, such serious anomalies and glaring defects in the parliamentary democratic system by the smug remark that such things are inevitable under a multi-party system. If such things are inevitable and if we are serious about democracy we must seriously set about to find a better type of democracy. The alternatives of plural constituencies, proportional representation, alternative vote cannot, even if there was general agreement about them, which there is not, take us far.
The claim that parliamentary democratic governments at least represent a majority of the voters breaks down in a still more serious manner. Experience has shown that present-day mass elections, manipulated by powerful, centrally controlled parties, with the aid of high finance and diabolically clever methods and super media of communication, represent far less the electorate than the forces and interests behind the parties and the propaganda machines. It is not only in the totalitarian countries that the ‘rape of the masses’ happens. The basic difference is that in a democracy there is a competition between the violators while there is no competition in totalitarianism.
Here we are face to face with another serious defect of parliamentary democracy – demagoguery. The need to ‘catch’ votes creates an unlimited opportunity for indulging in half-truths, even outright lies sometimes; for exciting the passions, more often than not, the base passions; for arousing false hopes by making dishonest, but pleasing promises. Hardly any issue of public policy is presented to the people in its true light; everything gets distorted by partisan demagoguery. The consequence of all this is that the real interests of the nation are sacrificed, more often than not, at the altar of demagoguery.
Perhaps the most serious fault of parliamentary democracy, from the point of view of democracy itself, is its inherent tendency toward centralism. At one extreme of its political spectrum is the nation state and at the other the individual voter, with a blank in between.
The local bodies that may exist have (a) little self-government powers, and (b) no direct or indirect influence on the nation state. Add to this the complexities of a highly industrialized civilization that are beyond even the understanding of the ordinary citizen, and you have a central state of overwhelming power and resources and the individual voter reduced to abject helplessness. The ‘sovereign people’ being dispersed over the length and breadth of the country like particles of sand over the desert and having no other organized political force than the nation state itself to interpose between themselves and that state, the latter naturally becomes all powerful.
The issue of power in such states is decided not by the fictitious ‘people’, but by a balance between political parties and such organized interests as industrialists and bankers and powerful labour unions. The people represent a wholeness, while the organized interests are sectional. Even a sum of the sections cannot make up the whole. Only their organic integration can do so. Such integration takes place only in the community – at its various levels. In the communal or communitarian democracy that we are advocating there is natural decentralization and a multi-central pluralistic state.
A natural outcome of centralization of power and administration is bureaucracy. The central executive or cabinet is so overburdened with work that it is compelled to leave more and more to, and depend more and more upon, the permanent officials, who in course of time gather more and more power for themselves. This soon leads to a dangerous autocracy, the autocracy of the bureaucrat, which is difficult to fight because it ‘works in the shadows’ and is hard to get at.
The only answer to the problem of bureaucracy is more and more decentralization so that the people directly participate in the administration of their affairs and control the civil servants who owe their jobs and are directly responsible to them. This is exactly what will happen in the communitarian democracy outlined here. The communal administrations might make mistakes and there might be inefficiency. But as they themselves will be the sufferers, they will learn and improve things. Moreover, during the British rule did we not say to ourselves repeatedly that good government was no substitute for self-government? Is that less true now?
An inevitable concomitant of parliamentary democracy is the party system. So much has been written in criticism of this system that it seems unnecessary to dwell upon it here at any length. Some criticism of it has been implicit in what has been said above. It is clear that parliamentary democracy cannot work without parties. Parties of a sort will perhaps exist everywhere and at all times. Even in the family there may be ‘parties’. In the ancient Indian republics, which were aristocratic democracies, parties and factions were a common feature. But the highly organized, centralized mass parties of modern times are a far cry from the factions of old, whether of the ancient Indian republics or the Greek city states.
The old democracies were small and the factions and the people were not so far removed from one another. The people therefore could judge them and the issues that were raised with intimate understanding. The issues in those days were also simple enough. All this has changed now and parties have become a sort of state within the state. They are now the real arbiters of the people’s fate, whose control over them is fictional. The citizens who cast their votes for the parties have nothing to do with the running of the parties: they are complete outsiders. Even the enrolled members of the parties have no say either in the policy-making or the inner administration of the parties. The parties are run by caucuses that are beyond democratic control.
Party rivalries, we have seen above, give birth to demagoguery, depress political ethics, put a premium on unscrupulousness and aptitude for manipulation and intrigue. Parties create dissensions where unity is called for, exaggerate differences where they should be minimized. Parties often put party interests over the national interests because centralization of power prevents the citizen from participating in government; the parties, that is to say, small caucuses of politicians, rule in the name of the people and create the illusion of democracy and self-government.
No doubt the party system has its good points and because parliamentary democracy cannot work without it, those who swear by that type of democracy and see no alternative to it, are prepared to accept the evils of the party system as inevitable and satisfy themselves by pointing out their virtues. For my part, it is not the party system that is the main culprit, but parliamentary democracy itself, which gives rise to it. In the communitarian democracy that I have proposed here, there may conceivably be parties, but they are likely to be local factions, and, in any case, their role in the state will not be as commanding as that of the parties in the parliamentary system.
Another serious fault of parliamentary democracy is the system of elections that it fosters and requires for its proper functioning. First of all, the system is very expensive and appallingly wasteful. The fabulous expenses involved have the effect of mortgaging democracy to moneyed interests or large sectional organizations like trade unions. As compared with this, elections in the communitarian system would cost practically nothing.
It would have been a matter of some consolation if the huge expenditure had resulted in any public good. In fact, the result is just the contrary. A general election, as noted above, creates unnecessary passion and excitement; instead of educating and enlightening the people it befogs their mind; instead of resulting in the election of able and good men, it tends to favour demagoguery. Serious political and economic issues and other questions of policy, it is obvious, should be considered calmly and dispassionately and not in the heat of partisan warfare. That is why I hold that the practice of general elections should be abolished. The elected houses should be continuous in nature, with a part of them being renewed periodically.
It is time now to gather all the threads of the argument and tie them together. Ancient Indian thought and tradition; social nature of man; social science; ethical and spiritual goals of civilization; the demand of democracy that the citizen should participate in the ordering and running of his life; the need of saving man from himself and from the fate of robotism; the requirement that the state and other institutions of society be reduced to a human scale; the ideal, above all, that man should become the centre of civilization – all these point in the same direction: to a communal or communitarian way of life; communitarian ethics and education; communitarian social, economic and political organization. In this paper I have been mainly interested in the political aspect of the matter: the shape of the political organization, or polity, most desirable for our country.
The foundation of this polity, as I have pointed out, must necessarily be self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities. The existing villages and townships provide the physical base for such reconstruction. A laudable beginning has been made in this connection by establishing gram panchayats and instituting such programmes as community development, ‘intensive area’ development (of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission), and co-operativization of the rural economy.
But from the point of view propounded in this paper these programmes suffer from several serious defects: (a) they lack an integrated social philosophy; (b) they have no clear concept of community; (c) they do not aim to create a balance within the community between agriculture and industry; (d) even though the aim is to create communities (no matter how vaguely understood) at the bottom level, the concept of social organization at the higher levels remains the same as that of the atomized industrial society of the West (which for our purpose here includes Russia).
Let me return now to the foundation of our polity. The foundation, as stated already, must be self governing, self sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities. The highest political institution of the local community should be the General Assembly – the gram sabha – of which all the adults should be considered members. The selection of the Executive – the panchayat – should be by general consensus of opinion in the sabha. There should be no ‘candidates’, i.e. no one should ‘stand’ for any post. There should be clear-cut qualifications, as in ancient times, laid down for all selective posts. No individual should hold the same post for more than a defined period of time. The panchayat should function through subcommittees charged with different responsibilities. There should be no official or member appointed or nominated by the state government in the panchayat or its sub-committees.
It may be questioned if there can ever be a general consensus of opinion amongst villagers who are divided into castes and factions and have conflicting interests. We have seen already how for thousands of years the villages of India elected their executive councils by general agreement. Those villages were by no means homogeneous and ideal communities. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the experience of centuries cannot be repeated again.
We may also recall that the only alternative method of election of village councils or panchayats was that of drawing lots. There is nothing undemocratic in selection by general agreement or by drawing lots; alternatively, it might be provided that the villages first try the former method, and failing therein take recourse to the latter. Something similar happens in the Bhoodan movement. When the landless families are unable to agree about the distribution of bhoodan lands between themselves, the issue is decided by drawing lots. It is not our experience that there has been in any case dissatisfaction with decisions reached in this manner.
The question may also be asked if the village panchayats, as they are today, would be able to function in the manner visualized above. There is no better way to teach the young except by giving them responsibility. In the same manner the only way to make the villages self-governing, self-reliant and self-sufficient is to throw upon them real responsibilities. There was a time when the Indian village republics were self-created, like the Swiss communes, and their powers and functions were not given to them from above. But in the present conditions they have to be recreated by a deliberate and bold process of devolution and decentralization if Indian democracy is to have a firm base and living reality.
I believe that the responsibility given to the gram sabha and the panchayat should be in things that really do matter. For instance, it should be the responsibility of the gram sabha and its panchayat to ensure that no one in the village goes without food, clothing and shelter; no child without primary education; every one receives primary medical care. The sabha and panchayat should see that the village becomes self-sufficient in the matter of food and clothing as soon as possible. Further, they should so plan that within five years, let us say, there is no unemployment in the village and every family reaches a minimum standard of living. Self-government, to be real, should be about essential problems of life.
It would be necessary for some time to help the village from above, but the responsibility must be clearly defined and the demand for help must come from the village in specific terms, meant to supplement what has been or is proposed to be done by the collective effort of the village. No help should be given until the village has proved that it has done that and is prepared to do its best to help itself. Eventually such help will have to come from the next larger communal organization, the regional community, but at the beginning it will have to come from the state government. Social and political workers must go in large numbers to the villages, not to make promises but to preach self-reliance and to help them to practice it.
The development of the rest of the polity need not wait till the villages and townships become real communities as visualized here. Our work must begin at all levels simultaneously, otherwise it will not succeed at any level.
The next level of the political structure would obviously be that of the regional community. Here, as already indicated, the gram panchayats will have to be integrated into the panchayat samiti, as recommended by the Balvantrai Mehta team, with this difference that the nature and functions of the samiti should be those of an autonomous self-governing community as discussed in the previous section: the samiti should have powers and obligations to do all that may be within its competence. As suggested already, the panchayat samiti, comprising the optimum community as defined above, would play a key role in the political and economic life of the country, particularly in the processes of planning and development.
There is one important point which I wish to emphasize in connection with the formation of the panchayat samiti. The samiti should be elected by the gram panchayats and not by their members. This at first might appear to be a distinction between six and half-a-dozen. But that is not so. We have here a major principle of communal life involved. It is the gram panchayat as a body that represents the village community and not its members. The panchayat samiti, in its turn, is a representative of the gram panchayats, and it is the latter that should be represented as such and not their members.
Following the pattern of social organization described in the previous section, the political structure would rise storey by storey from the foundation. The next storey above the panchayat samiti would be that of the district council (or whatever name given to it), which will be formed by the integration of the panchayat samitis of the district – again the samitis as such electing their representatives and not their members. The district councils, in their turn, should have all the powers and obligations necessary to do everything that may be within their competence.
In a similar manner all the district councils of a state would come together to create the state assembly. The state assemblies, in like manner, would bring into being the Lok Sabha. Thus the political institution at each level is an integration of all the institutions at the lower level.
The picture drawn here of the polity of India, and of social organization in general, might perhaps appear to be idealistic. If so, I would not consider that to be a disqualification. An ideal cannot but be idealistic. The question is if the ideal is impractical, unscientific or otherwise ill-conceived. I have tried in the preceding pages to show that all relevant considerations lead irresistibly towards it.
The achievement of this ideal would, however, be a colossal task. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of voluntary workers would be needed over a number of years to accomplish it.
The governments should lend their full support; but it is necessary to remember that the main burden of the task would have to be borne by voluntary political and social workers and institutions. The heart of the problem is to create the ‘spirit of community’, without which the whole body politic would be without life and soul. This is a task of moral regeneration to be brought about by example, service, sacrifice and love. Those who occupy high places in society – in politics, business, the professions – bear the heavy responsibility of leading the people by personal example.
The task also is one of social engineering, needing the help of the state; of scientists, experts, educationists, businessmen, experimenters; of men and women; of young and old. It is a task of dedication; of creation; of self-discovery. It is a task that defines India’s destiny. It spells a challenge to India’s sons and daughters. Will they accept the challenge?