The swearing-in of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th President of India is a truly momentous event. She is the first person belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community and the second woman to occupy the highest constitutional post of the country. She is also the youngest person to be elected as the President and the first to be born in independent India. She defeated Yashwant Sinha in the presidential polls, winning almost two-third of the votes of the electoral college.
The ascent of an Adivasi woman from a humble background to the highest constitutional post is an unprecedented triumph, at least symbolically if not substantially. Ms. Murmu was born in a village in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha and belongs to the Santhal tribe, one of the largest ST communities in India. She was a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Odisha, representing Rairangpur for two terms between 2000 and 2009, and went on to serve as the Governor of Jharkhand between 2015 and 2021.
This remarkable journey from Rairangpur to Raisina Hill may not have been possible without the constitutional reforms that institutionalised representative local governments. Ms. Murmu began her political career as a councillor in the Rairangpur Nagar Panchayat, where she was elected from a ward reserved for women from ST communities.
The “silent revolution” of democratic decentralisation initiated 30 years ago has played a key role in diversifying representation in politics. In December 1992, the Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th Amendments that mandated the creation of democratically elected Panchayats and Municipalities, respectively. The amendments sought to devolve rural and urban local governments with functions, funds, and functionaries to enable them to function as “institutions of self-government” and meet the stated ends of economic development and social justice.
At one level, these amendments signalled a realisation of a long-held vision of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers to make the village the core unit of governance. This demand was initially dismissed by the prominent members in the Constituent Assembly including Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who famously remarked, “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism. I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”
Hence, India’s centralised federal Constitution adopted in 1950 had no real space for local governments until the passing of the 73rd and 74th Amendments. However, it would be a mistake to view these constitutional reforms merely as a fulfilment of Gandhi’s romantic ideas of “gram swaraj” since they moved away from traditional panchayats and institutionalised local governments in the mould of the modern state apparatus.
Most significantly, these amendments mandated the reservation of seats in the elected councils of Panchayats and Municipalities to members belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and STs based on their percentage population in the jurisdiction and a minimum of one-third seats for women.
The amendments also mandate the reservation of seats for the chairpersons of Panchayats and Municipalities for SCs, STs, and women and enables States to reserve seats for members of backward classes.
What is most distinctive about the reservation provisions under these amendments is that it furthers representation of those at the intersection of more than one marginalised identity. Seats in Panchayats and Municipalities are hence reserved not only for SCs, STs and women, but also for categories like SC Women, ST Women and OBC Women. Such a quota system acknowledges the aggravated discrimination and disadvantages people face due to the intersection of multiple ascriptive identities such as gender and caste. The amendments, hence, provide a platform for thousands of Dalit and Adivasi women who have hitherto been underrepresented in political and social life to contest local elections, hold public office, and rise in the field of politics.
Almost 30 years after the passing of these constitutional reforms, local governments have still not become powerful “units of self-government” due to issues in both the design and the implementation of the amendments. However, they have succeeded in broadening the representative character of the Indian state by increasing the total number of elected representatives and diversifying its constituents. In fact, States have gone beyond the mandate of the Amendments and increased the reservation for women and introduced reservation for OBCs. As many as 20 States have increased women’s reservation from 33% to 50%. As of September 2020, out of a total of 31,87,320 elected representatives in Panchayats across India, 14,53,973 are women.
This radical expansion of the social base of Indian politics has been relatively ignored in academic and policy debates. The judiciary has also been quite sceptical of legislative measures for diversifying representation in local governments. The Supreme Court in multiple cases stayed State governments’ efforts to implement OBC reservation in local government elections, demanding that it be justified by “empirical finding” of backwardness. However, it has upheld amendments that prescribed educational qualifications for contesting local body elections on the ground that it is for the “better administration of the panchayats”.
In popular discourse, reservation mandates in local governments are often dismissed as measures that do not substantially benefit the marginalised groups. However, it is important to note that representation of marginalised groups is, at one level, a normative goal that possess inherent value. Further, though it is true that women are sometimes proxies for their husbands in reserved constituencies, empirical studies have shown that women-led panchayats invest more in public goods, prioritise infrastructure more relevant for women, and increase women’s involvement in village affairs.
Critics have also dismissed the appointment of President Murmu as a mere tokenistic measure that will not improve the plight of Adivasis. Such cynicism is unfair, especially because in her tenure as the Governor of Jharkhand, she used her gubernatorial discretion to return amendments to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act introduced by the Raghubar Das-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that sought to allow the State to make commercial use of Adivasi land.
While it remains to be seen how President Murmu will use her office, her appointment underscores the far-reaching possibilities that measures for diversifying representation at the grassroots can have on the top.
Mathew Idiculla is a legal consultant and a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru