The problem


INDIA’S grand experiment with local governance began with the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1992. Since then, a lot of changes have taken place, including the opening of the economy, increase in social mobility, changes in the party system, rapid advancement in technology, among others. This issue of Seminar is an attempt to take a stock of this experiment 30 years later – what we have achieved and where we failed?

It is true that there have been efforts to give legal status to local self-governments across rural and urban India since independence, and the third-tier structure with radical promises is a product of the long conversation on the relationship between democracy and decentralization.

One of the important consequences of seven decades of competitive electoral politics and economic development in India has been the transformation of authority in rural areas and the decline of the old social order. Not only did these constitutional amendments serve the purpose of decentralization in the Indian political system, but extensive quotas for historically marginalized groups and women ensured better descriptive representation of these communities than ever before. The Act mandated one-third of the total seats in all local bodies to be reserved for women as well as reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) based on the percentage of their populations. These groups gained a share of political power, and this development was marked by the emergence of a new pattern of leadership – naya netas (new leaders) – who are independent of traditional power structures.

While this indeed is a sign of greater democratization at the local level in India, there is another side to this story. Despite the decline in caste hierarchies, there remains abundant evidence of the reproduction of traditional local power structures, even though they may no longer be based on land and ritual distinction exclusively, as they once were. We have yet not seen signs of a political pipeline from panchayats to parliament. It is still a rare phenomenon for schedule caste candidates to win from non-reserved seats. Similarly, while the participation of women at the polling booth has increased manifold in the past three decades, they continue to remain at the margins as far as nomination as candidates for assembly or general elections are concerned, or for that matter important positions in organizational structure of the party.

The decentralization of governance structures has often been described as a means of both improving service delivery and curbing corruption. One of the most common arguments in favour of decentralization is that it increases the accountability of government by ‘bringing it closer to the people.’ It has been argued that decentralization changes the nature of local political agency, increases the participation of local communities in decision-making processes, and improves political enforcement. The notion that decentralization will increase participatory governance and lead to improvements in people’s well-being is not entirely consistent with documented evidence. There is some truth to the skepticism as to whether the introduction of democratic principles alone can help achieve objectives, without addressing the social and political structures at the local level, especially in areas where a large number of people are dependent upon a small number of powerful local elites.

Local governments in India are a state subject and thus there is a considerable variation across states in the architecture of this model as well as number of items on which local governments can act independently. States have followed different trajectories to devolve powers, functions, and responsibilities to the elected representatives. These local bodies continue to have very limited financial and administrative powers. It is well known in policy circles that local governments are under-resourced and over-burdened. State governments through its bureaucratic machinery continue to exercise considerable discretionary authority and influence over local governments. The powers of local elected officials in India remain seriously circumscribed by the state government and bureaucrats in multiple ways, thereby diluting the spirit of the constitutional amendments. The institutional design of local government demands for more trust – the state governments and bureaucrats must shed their inhibitions and reluctance to share power.

Similarly, many of the deficiencies of Indian politics visible in national and state elections have now become part and parcel of third-tier elections as well. The sheer money and muscle power deployed during these elections is phenomenal. If one calculates the average money spent by a panchayat election candidate, then expenditure incurred per voter is likely to be higher than what Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha candidates usually spend.  The situation is not very different in municipal elections too.

And despite the fact that the law bans candidates from using party symbols in panchayat elections in many states, partisanship plays a key role due to astronomically high cost of contesting those elections. Candidates are often helped financially by district-level politicians to contest elections in exchange for their support as an agent in the locality.

In many states, the elections at different tiers of local governments are direct, and in other cases indirect (council members elect the president). Researchers have documented that indirect elections at various levels have created a system in which large numbers of candidates get elected unopposed, mostly supported by the ruling party in the state.It is not surprising then the presidential candidate at different tiers of both urban and rural local governments are mostly relatives of sitting Members of Parliament (MP), Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA), and ministers, and figures from the ruling party in the state. In fact, as soon as a change in the ruling regime in the state capital takes place, successful no-confidence motions are brought against many incumbent district and block council presidents.

Local-level politicians remain the primary contact points for most citizens in both urban and rural India. A lot of our understanding about the successes and failures of India’s decentralized model, especially in academic circles, largely comes from rural, and the complexity of urban politics has not received due attention. While there are indeed areas of overlap between rural and urban local bodies, we need to develop new frameworks to understand the differences in challenges the local governance structures face in these two contexts.

The essays in this issue of ‘Seminar’ are an attempt to access the impact of transformative promises as envisioned in 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. Were we being over-ambitious then or have we become too impatient with the slow pace of change now?  In the 75th year of Independence, it is time that we reimagine the relationship between decentralization and democracy in a rapidly changing India to make the promises of these constitutional amendments a reality.