April 24th is celebrated in the country as Panchayati Raj Day to mark the day when the 73rd Constitutional Amendment came into force. The Amendment gave constitutional status to panchayats, provided for regular elections and mandated reservation for dalits, advisasis, and women, hitherto inadequately represented. The BJP-led Central Government used the occasion to try and overhaul its urban anti-poor image in the face of persistent rural distress through a two week “Gram Uday Se Bharat Uday” blitz, which culminated in an address by the Prime Minister to all the panchayats of the country. In his speech, the Prime Minister reiterated Gandhiji’s dictum that India lives in its villages and exhorted women representatives of Panchayats to take a leadership role in building toilets. It is not clear how much of the rural electorate was convinced by the Prime Minister but the Union minister for urban development, housing and urban poverty alleviation extolled the BJP’s commitment to “gram swaraj” in a recent piece. However, contrary to the rhetoric, BJP-led Governments – supported by the Prime Minister – have actively undermined the inclusive and democratic character of Panchayats as envisioned in the 73rd amendment. More perniciously, the BJP has used governance in local bodies to attack the very construct of citizenship in a democracy.
In the last one year, two BJP states – Rajasthan and Haryana – have mandated among other criteria such as working toilets in home that all candidates for Panchayat polls must have completed at least middle and secondary school. In Rajasthan, these education criteria have debarred more than 75% of the rural population above the age of 20 years from contesting Panchayat polls. Among the Scheduled Castes, 93% women above 20 years of age have been disqualified (82% overall). Similar numbers have been disqualified in Haryana as well. The anti-poor, anti-women, anti-Dalit (and anti-Minority) bias of these amendments is obvious, yet the Prime Minister and his Party defended these amendments in the Parliament under the guise of competence when they were raised by the Congress Party.
Democracy – a system of Government of, by and for the people – is differentiated by the citizen’s right to contest for public office and the right to vote for a public representative of own choice. The BJP Governments of Rajasthan and Haryana have restricted a key citizenship right in a democracy – the right to contest for public office – for reasons completely extraneous to citizenship. It is untenable to argue in a democracy that the poor and marginalized who may not have had the wherewithal to study or build toilets in their home are lesser citizens than the privileged – yet that is essentially what these panchayat amendments are doing by using education and toilets as proxy.
The panchayat amendments also undermine the citizen’s right in a democracy to elect a public representative of her own choice. In both states, the amendments perforce disqualify about eight in ten SC population above the age of 20 from contesting elections. Adivasis are even worse affected and while the Census does not record data separately for minorities, similar numbers can be expected for Muslims if not other minorites. The choice then for self-representation among Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims is severely curtailed and it is clear from the scale of disqualification that only the elite among these groups will qualify. This manner of mass disqualification ostensibly in the interest of the electorate at best implies that the citizen is incapable of choosing the best candidate to represent her interests and at worst is an attempt to facilitate elite capture of state institutions.
The deleterious impact of the amendments is visible in both Rajasthan and Haryana. In Haryana, where education requirements were imposed at the panch level as well, half of the panches were elected unopposed. Even more shockingly, about 2000 posts of panch remain vacant in Haryana because no one was eligible to contest. The numbers of unopposed candidates at panchayat, block and district level too have increased in both Rajasthan and Haryana. If elections imply free choice among plurality of representative options, then does the “election” of an unopposed candidate because no one else was eligible to contest qualify as an election? Moreover, 13 Panchayats in Rajasthan and 21 Panchayats in Haryana could not elect a Sarpanch at all. It can be nobody’s case that these vacant panchayats where no election could take place have democracy. Democracy is part of the basic structure of our Constitution and is unalterable even by the Parliament; however these Panchayat amendments have undermined democracy both in principle and in fact.
At the same time, the amendments have finished careers of thousands of grassroots politicians – especially women – who had risen through sheer grit and determination and have done remarkable work in their panchayats. Disaggregated numbers at the sarpanch level are unavailable but of the elected representatives at the block level, more than 70% and 50% were disqualified in Rajasthan and Haryana respectively. Of those elected in this election cycle, hundreds, including at the highest level of Zila Parishad Pramukhs (district heads) are mired in complaints of fake education certificates unnecessarily criminalizing ordinary people and undermining the sanctity of elected public office.
The Prime Minister sought to defend these amendments in the Parliament stating that his Party was trying to bring “qualitative change” and the attempts were being unnecessarily “politicized” by the Opposition. These comments are indicative of the Prime Minister’s contempt for the political role of panchayats seeing them instead as implementing authorities for top down priorities. He dismisses the political role of an elected representative – to alter power equations, build consensus, exercise judgment, prioritize the allocation of state resources –none of which are contingent on formal education, favouring instead women’s participation to build toilets etc. Yet the very groups that most need this social justice role of a political functionary have been excluded from representation in the political process. The Prime Minister chides the Opposition for “politicizing” these amendments even though they directly disenfranchise 80% of Dalits and Advisasis. In Varanasi, in Prime Minister’s constituency, about half of the recently elected sarpanches will get disqualified if similar amendments were to be brought in Uttar Pradesh. His Party has recently named an OBC as the state head and is actively courting Dalits before the upcoming assembly elections in the state. Likewise, the BJP has named a Dalit as the state of Punjab, where 30% of the population is SC majority of whom are also below middle school pass. It is pertinent to know whether the Prime Minister advocates “qualitative change” in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab as well?
These amendments set a normative precedent to curtail citizenship rights of the poor and marginalised in other states and at other levels of public office and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. It is true that other Governments too have passed regressive amendments such as debarring candidates with more than two children from contesting Panchayat polls, however prior aberrations cannot serve as justification for even more egregious exclusions. Instead if we profess a commitment to democracy, all such irrelevant conditions on candidates for elections must be jettisoned forthwith