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A vote for federalism

By Pran Chopra

It appears that panchayat leaders in Madhya Pradesh used their electoral clout to press for their priorities.

THERE ARE four important messages in the outcome of the recent elections in Madhya Pradesh. The first tells us what kind of "development" people want. The second shows which level of governance can deliver it best. The third says what this may mean for federalism. The fourth warns MLAs that, just as they themselves used the dynamics of democratic federalism to dilute the power of MPs at the Union-States level of federalism, panchayat leaders can use the same dynamics against them at the level of sub-State federalism.

The meaning underlying all the four messages is that this outcome is a vote for more federalism. These lessons merited more attention coming as they do from a State that in many ways is a scale model of India and forms a huge part of the Hindu-Hindi heartland, which carries considerable political weight. Statistical proof may be hard to come by yet. But all ground level evidence confirms two mutually complementary impressions. First, neither party overtly played the communal card either in Madhya Pradesh or adjacent Rajasthan, which forms another large part of the same heartland. Second, some recent events have turned the voter's attention to the twin issues of the content and the means of "development" at the ground level.

Regarding the content of development, the priority for the defeated Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, was education and health. But the voters' choice turned out to be utilities such as roads, electricity, and water. This was partly because of the low credibility of politicians' promises. People realise the importance of education and health. But they also realise that it takes time to develop the social sectors, and governments do not always stay the course.

There is a signal here for the country's federal system. It is universally accepted that local authorities are best suited for delivering local development. But they cannot deliver unless they are given the resources, either as funds or as taxation powers. That calls for a hard look at the present distribution of functions and powers under the Constitution. Otherwise strains can develop in the whole system. Now it appears that panchayat leaders in Madhya Pradesh have used their electoral clout to press for their priorities.

Wherever a serious effort has been made to introduce panchayati raj, MPs and MLAs have resisted it. Just as MPs, being an earlier generation of stakeholders in the political power structure, had once resisted when MLAs flew in on the wings of federalism and coalition politics.

The resistance of legislators to the predictable power of panchayats is a countrywide phenomenon. In fact there is reason to believe that the 73rd and 74th amendments would have failed in Parliament if they had not been watered down the way they were, and even the surviving form has been further neutralised by State Assemblies. This has led to the obvious conclusion among the propagators and practitioners of panchayati raj that panchayats must develop electoral clout if they are to ensure development at the grassroots. They now believe that power to influence elections has become as indispensable a tool in sub-State federalism as MLAs themselves have found it to be in Union-States federalism. The belief has been put to the test in Madhya Pradesh.

It is difficult to say how great was the part it played in shaping the outcome, but any part that it played was ironical in one sense and logical in another. For the past few years Mr. Digvijay Singh had been earning plaudits for taking up panchayats as his major project for the political empowerment of the people. But he altered course in the later years of his second term.

It is obvious he did not quickly take sufficient note of the fact that panchayat leaders were emerging as important new players in the electoral arena, and they were disgruntled over what, understandably, they saw as some harm being done to the panchayat system in the name of reforming it. At the lower end of the system they were atomising it and turning duly elected and empowered panchayats into toothless entities "with no contents or substance of power" as was pointed out two years ago by a former Chief Secretary of the State and an ardent campaigner in social causes, Nirmala Buch.

What followed, according to Mrs. Buch was that "rival political parties" began to mobilise the support of "strong sarpanches" who had influence among the voters. In this race the BJP had an advantage because of the resentment among panchayat leaders over their displacement by what Mr. Digvijay Singh had named "district governments", and after the election the BJP Government consolidated this advantage by abolishing these invented "governments".

In a conversation just before the election, Mr. Digvijay Singh defended the scheme as his way of bringing the government in Bhopal closer to the people. But in fact they did little more than to decentralise the administrative bureaucracy.

This is a good objective in itself but it is no substitute for what lies at the heart of the panchayat system, a vertical chain of locally elected committees, fully empowered and funded to develop the locality according to priorities determined by the people of the locality concerned. The mistake cost him dear. But if his mistake makes all politicians more aware of the true meaning, purpose and usefulness of the third tier of India's federalism, then the polity will have benefited.

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