Decentralization facilitated dominant caste entrenchments


AS Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald put it, we need national government for national needs and local government for local needs, the importance of local government institutions is self-evident. In fact, the local bodies are more important insofar as people’s day-to-day lives are concerned than the state or national governments. However, this comment is a critique of the ‘elected’ village panchayats in India.

The point is not that local government through elections is inherently good or bad. Context matters. Geography matters. And the aims and design of these institutions matter. It is also ironic that many public-policy interventions require certain enabling conditions to succeed, however, once those enabling conditions are in place, there would not be any need for those policy interventions. For example, a relatively harmonious society and a bureaucracy that is accountable and efficient are the two conditions necessary for successful governance at any level. Most of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries do possess these two conditions. For example, Of the 38 member-countries of OECD, which is a group of the developed nations, 36 countries are homogeneous, and each country has one language. They are also homogeneous in terms of their ethnicity and religion. In contrast, in countries such as India where social harmony and efficient bureaucracy are below par, the second-order solutions like local self-government will not only be ineffective but a distraction from tackling the real challenges, viz., promoting social harmony as well as efficiency in administration.

Mahatma Gandhi is the father of local self-government in India, especially the Gram Panchayats. The village was central to his approach to not only India’s independence but its social and economic advancement. He sought to reconstruct the nation by making villages self-reliant and self-sustaining. He wrote his most definitive statement on the subject in Harijan in 1942 that ‘My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity.’ A complete republic? One is not sure if Gandhi used the expression for his emphasis on village autonomy. One
is also not sure if 700,000 village republics (by Gandhi’s reckoning) were to exist, what could have been the role of other tiers of government, and the relations among them.

However, Gandhi had nothing to do with the ‘old’ village. In his village, ‘there will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability… The government of the village will be conducted by a Panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications.’ Therefore, since the Gandhian conception of village has resemblance to neither the past nor the present, it may be treated more as a Platonic idea. Gandhi’s total disregard for the reality of caste is baffling since he himself had faced a social boycott from his caste in Gujarat, according to Ingole, when he was to undertake sea voyage (which was thought to have been forbidden for upper castes) for studies in England.

During the debate in the Constituent Assembly on the directive principle related to village panchayats (Article 40 in the Constitution), members were unanimous that they were giving effect to the Gandhian conception which is an ideal and a utopia. But no one mentioned Mahatma’s stress on non-violence, fortified by satyagraha and non-cooperation, being essential for village republics to thrive. One member (L. Krishnaswami Bharathi) even cited from the above comment by Gandhi in Harijan. Gandhi’s whole scheme of making the village a vibrant site of self-rule, whether it was practicable or not, has other prerequisites like the need for a voluntary village worker rendering the services of even a Bhangi (a sanitation worker), unpaid work for common good, etc. But the Gandhian way of managing life in the village has never been part of our panchayat system. Therefore, the superficial understanding of a Platonic idea informed the design and functioning of panchayats, which resulted in two unfortunate developments.

First, devoid of the Gandhian ideal, the panchayat system has become an extension of the village’s power dynamics. A recent study by Anderson, Francois and Kotwal, based on a survey in 9,132 households in 320 villages in Maharashtra, concludes that ‘beneath the veneer of representative democracy, minority local elites are somehow able to capture majoritarian local institutions and run them in their own interests.’ In other words, caste remains the organizing principle of village life and more so now with quotas having been introduced after the 73rd Amendment came into force. It would be a moot point to ask whether caste could ever be eradicated or wished away. But elections for village panchayats, the lowest level wherein caste is more salient, remains problematic. Writing in 2004, George Mathew, who is an expert on local self-government institutions, highlighted how the upper castes resort to violence when the lower castes, especially the Dalits, tried to claim their rights of representation in panchayats. Villages in India today may not be what Ambedkar called them to be – ‘a sink of localism and den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’ – but they are still plagued by illiteracy and caste divisions.

Mathew narrates several instances of violence and murder unleashed on Dalits and tribals when they get elected to panchayats since 1993 and writes: ‘Although as a person I’m an optimist, for Dalits and tribals, I mean the SC/STs, the situation is extremely grim and gloomy.’ Though he made these remarks two decades ago, we must keep a couple of points in context. One, scholars tend to ignore the sporadic nature of violence against the lower castes as these incidents appear statistically insignificant. Doesn’t one expect these aberrations in a large and complex country? However, sporadic acts of violence are good enough to reassert dominance and social conditioning. Two, caste discrimination is not a matter of one or two acts of violence and impunity. It is a spectrum. The dominant castes use scores of methods, from imposing social and economic disadvantages to inflicting violence, to thwart social change. And most forms of caste oppression wouldn’t get reported.

Therefore, far from the Gandhian ideal of caste-less villages, the panchayat system, and the quotas under the 73rd Amendment have become an instrument in the hands of the dominant castes.

Second, having created an imperfect system of local (self) government, the nation moved on as if it found a solution to all governance problems in villages. This distraction explains the absence of administrative reforms at local level. If the inefficiency or callousness of officialdom was the raison d’être for the panchayat institutions but they would never function effectively if local officials were not efficient. As the phenomenon is indicated in the introduction, efficient bureaucracy is essential for the panchayats to succeed, but the existence of the same efficient bureaucracy obviates the need for panchayats. We have ended up both neglecting the need to make local bureaucracy efficient and accountable and creating a system of local self-government which stands little chance of success given the impediments like caste divisions and rampant illiteracy.

The two negative outcomes elaborated above may not be equally applicable to India as a whole, given its extreme diversity. For example, Bihar and Kerala may stand at two extremes; similarly, there could be wide divergence in the functioning of panchayats in coastal districts and Rayala Seema in Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, we need more studies to understand how far panchayat system is effective where it matters – in the so-called aspirational districts – not in states that are otherwise relatively well governed.

One can draw interesting parallels between India and the United States on how their respective founding fathers grappled with critical issues of framing their constitutions. The majority was unanimous on establishing checks and balances against authoritarian impulses as well as
the need to create a strong central government. In both countries, there was a significant minority that viewed a strong and distant national government with suspicion and advocated local self-governance.

Though in India these groups were not given any tags, in the US the majority pro-national government came to be known as the Federalists, while the minority that sought local rule as the Anti-Federalists. However, the minority groups did end up accomplishing their core objective. In India local self-government found its way into the directive principles in 1950 and in 1993 received the constitutional status. In the US initial constitutional amendments accommodated many demands of the anti-Federalists and, as a result, now elections are held in more than three thousand counties which are the lowest level of government, having an average population of a hundred thousand.

In the case of India, it would be appropriate to call anti-federalists those members of the Constituent Assembly who pleaded for not merely panchayat institutions at local level but regretted that the draft constitution did not adopt the village as the basic unit of government. On 22 November 1948, H.V. Kamath articulated the anti-federalist sentiment thus: ‘I would only express the hope that where the type of capitalist, parliamentary democracy typified by Europe and America and the centralised socialism typified by the Soviet Union have failed to bring peace, happiness and prosperity to mankind, we in India might be able to set up a new political and economic pattern, and that we would be able to realise the vision of Mahatma Gandhi’s Panchayat Raj and, through this system of decentralised socialism, we will lead mankind and the world to the goal of peace and happiness.’

The Indian anti-federalists had an additional reason to focus on panchayats as these are indigenous institutions and hence authentically Indian. In fact, for them, panchayats were the only Indian element in the Constitution. But some members’ caution that these were caste panchayats did not dampen their enthusiasm. In the end, the anti-federalists merely paid lip service to Mahatma Gandhi and created a system which is far from Gandhian but closer to panchayats of yore. Munshi and Rosenzweig found that ‘the presence of a numerically dominant sub-caste (caste equilibrium) is associated with the selection of leaders with superior observed characteristics and with greater public good provision.’ It is a rather direct admission that the panchayat system succeeds only when it is in sync with the caste system.

While James Madison articulated against the dangers of ‘local prejudices’ (in the Federalist Paper No. 10), Ambedkar used a colourful expression for the village, ‘a sink of localism and den of ignorance.’ Bardhan and Mookherjee came to the same conclusion that ‘the lower the level of government, the greater is the extent of capture of vested interests.’

However, one can as well cite more studies to demonstrate how or why elected local bodies do deliver on their promises. Be that as it may, this comment invokes the broad argument that the local, being narrow-minded and majoritarian, may go against the interests of minorities and weaker sections. There are four limits to elected panchayats in the present narrow context.

One, panchayats are more a part of the problem rather than a solution as they are amenable to dominant castes’ interests. Hence, their focus is more on managing village power dynamics, not providing good governance. This factor is contrary to the ultimate constitutional ideal of rendering caste irrelevant in public life. If the panchayats’ remit were solely to articulate village-level demands and hold the officials accountable, India would have designed a different kind of system. Instead, in the Constituent Assembly, Gram Swaraj (village self-rule) became the rallying cry with nobody bothering to unpack what the slogan really meant. In any case, most public goods that reach villages are a function of governance at the state and central levels, such as employment guarantee schemes, or the myriad other the so-called centrally sponsored schemes related to rural hous-ing, sanitation, drinking water supply and what have you.


Two, since the panchayats are an additional layer (in that they do not replace even one local government employee), they are expensive. Theoretically, given the literacy levels in rural areas, every election would bring in new members whose educational levels are very low and who are inexperienced. One might argue that even state assemblies and parliament too receive their share of members who are inadequately educated or experienced. In these cases, the party system ensures that the legislation and resolutions introduced and passed are produced by competent people. The members of legislature would merely have to obey the party whip. The functioning of panchayats could be expensive in many other ways. For example, a road may be sanctioned by the state or central government, but the panchayat could interfere to alter the course of the road to conform to power dynamics of the village. Therefore, the cost is not merely in terms of expenditure towards conducting elections and managing the functioning of the panchayat; the governance outcomes wouldn’t justify the whole exercise.

Three, though caste plays an important role in all elections, panchayat elections divide the village in more substantive ways since contestation and polarization could be between neighbours or between agricultural labourers and their landlord employers. Moreover, the federalist sentiment against local prejudices, both in India and the US, is rooted in the logic that a large pool of electors at national and state levels is more likely to produce competent representatives than at local/village levels where the size of electors is too small to produce competent representatives. For India, polarization on caste lines in villages doesn’t have to be a temporary phenomenon during elections; the fault lines are permanent. Panchayats add a new dynamism to caste divisions, rather than being a force for unity and cohesion.

Four, the diffusion of accountability is a general problem with all elected bodies in the sense that though their decisions may cause hardship to common people or loss to government finances, fixing individual responsibility is impossible. For example, many problems related to encroachment or misuse of public land, faulty construction of infrastructure etc in urban areas originate in decisions taken in committees of urban bodies. As mentioned in point two above, a panchayat can take a unanimous or a majority decision to build a school or a road at such a site that adversely affects some communities like Dalits, but it would be impossible to act against that faulty decision. In all governance systems fixing individual responsibility is the sine qua non for ensuring bureaucratic efficiency and accountability.

These are the four main limitations to democratic decentralization at the village.


As stressed earlier, democratic decentralization may work well in so many contexts. Even in India the dominant castes in villages are happy with the panchayat system as they can use it to their advantage. Even Dalits participate in it as they get to exercise their citizenship in one more way, though they face a push back.

Dalits and other weaker sections have experienced substantive economic mobility and the social disruptions that market reforms brought about have enhanced their bargaining power in the village. Given the magnitude of the caste problem as well as its intractability over several centuries, the positive changes in Dalits’ lives over the past few decades must be termed as radical transformation. But panchayats have had no role in this transformation; in fact, their very operations force everyone to think only in terms of caste.

The problem with panchayats is not merely that of a binary – upper caste dominance over the lower castes though it could a primary one – lower castes too could be nepotistic. A Dalit who became a Sarpanch (panchayat head) through reservations may be no better.

A system that fossilizes people’s perceptions of themselves and others, as the panchayat elections engender, is a clear impediment to material and moral progress of all.



Siwan Anderson, Patrick Francois, and Ashok Kotwal, ‘Clientelism in Indian Villages’, American Economic Review 105(6), June 2015, p. 1781.

Pranab K. Bardhan and Dilip Mookherjee, ‘Capture and Governance at Local and National Levels’, American Economic Review 90(2), May 2000, p. 135.

Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Village Swaraj’, Harijan 9(28), 26 July 1942, p. 238.

Anagha Ingole, Caste Panchayats and Caste Politics in India. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2021, p. 126.

George Mathew, ‘Local Self-Government and Dalits’, in Bibek Debroy and D. Shyam Babu (eds.), The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice. Globus Books, New Delhi, p. 262.

Kaivan Munshi and Mark Rosenzweig, ‘The Efficacy of Parochial Politics: Caste, Commitment, and Competence in Indian Local Governments’. Working Paper No. 14335. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, September 2008.