The local is political
Panchayats have become a powerful systematic investment plan for political parties to deepen their local influence.
It is not unusual to witness prime ministers taking a deep interest in the functioning of panchayats across the country. On the 25th year of India lending constitutional recognition to panchayats as the third-tier of elected governance, after the union and state governments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Rashtriya Gramswaraj Abhiyan to make panchayats sustainable and effective. Before him, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajiv Gandhi (he initiated the constitutional amendments to make them elected governments with constitutionally mandated functions) also took interest in the functioning of panchayats. Not digging deep into their effectiveness, one aspect is very stark: they have garnered huge political interests. And, that is a good sign.
Of late, panchayat elections have captured the entire nation's attention. They attract equal political and media attention when compared to the bigger state elections. In fact, Modi regularly takes to a micro-blogging site to congratulate the workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for winning their respective panchayat elections. All the national and regional parties are investing heavy resources to contest these elections at the local, rural level. This is when, constitutionally, local elections are not fought on a party basis. Political parties cannot field candidates for such elections, so they just support them. But why are local body polls generating such a massive amount of national attention? The foremost reason could be that the panchayati raj form of governance has matured into a solid political forum at the village level. Twenty-five years of regular elections and the ever-increasing roles of panchayats in ensuring the smooth passage of local development have contributed to their emergence as a formidable political platform for both the national and regional parties. Panchayats are the places where the future state and national leaders are incubated and nurtured. Often, panchayat leaders work as political parties' foot soldiers during state and national elections. Earlier regimes in West Bengal and Kerala have also been known to use panchayat leaders to consolidate their political influence. Even BJP President Amit Shah's now-famous "booth management" strategy is being implemented through panchayat-level leaders. Thus, panchayats have become a kind of systematic investment plan (SIP) for political parties to deepen their influence through the length and breadth of the country without remaining isolated in select urban pockets.
The second and most relevant reason is the change in the development delivery regime. All welfare programmes are routed through the panchayats now. In fact, the panchayat head is the only elected representative in India who also performs certain executive roles. A prime minister doesn't sign a cheque, but a sarpanch has that power. It means that while a state or the Union government can create many development schemes, they would ultimately be implemented by the panchayats at the grassroots level. Without control over them, a party in power loses the political mileage that can be derived from the scheme.
Politically, it creates a situation where state or national parties cannot ignore the functioning of panchayats. The argument that the same party ruling both at the Centre as well as the state results in better development possibilities seems to be extending down to the panchayat level too. Already, there are trends of state-ruling parties using this argument of better political coordination for the perceived better development of the entire country in sync with the national register. But is this desirable? The Panchayati Raj Act does not allow political parties to contest local elections. This is because of the long debate that had preceded the enactment of this law. Many debated that political parties' interference would disturb the functioning of local bodies which are supposed to be based on the core principle of community camaraderie. But, there is hardly any opposition to the recent trend of political parties engaging deeply in local elections. Maybe, this is the way decentralisation of power unfolds in a democracy: everything is ultimately political in the end.
(The author is Managing Editor, Down to Earth magazine. Views expressed are strictly personal)