The PM dismissed the political role of an elected representative and instead favoured women’s participation only to build toilets.


April 24 is celebrated in the country as Panchayati Raj Day to mark the coming into force of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. The amendment gave constitutional status to panchayats, provided for regular elections to them and mandated reservation for Dalits, adivasis and women, hitherto inadequately represented.

The BJP-led Central government used the occasion this year to try for an overhaul of its urban, anti-poor image in the face of persistent rural distress through a two-week-long “Gram Uday Se Bharat Uday” blitz, which culminated in an address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all the panchayats of the country.

In his speech, Modi reiterated Mahatma Gandhi‘s dictum that India lives in its villages and exhorted women representatives of panchayats to take the leadership 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, Venkaiah Naidu, had extolled the BJP’s commitment to “gram swaraj” in a recent piece.

However, contrary to the rhetoric, the BJP government under Modi has 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-ruled states – Rajasthan and Haryana – have mandated, among other criteria such as having working toilets at home, that all candidates for panchayat polls must have completed at least middle and secondary school.

It can be nobody’s case that vacant panchayats where no election could take place have democracy.

In Rajasthan, this criterion of minimum education has debarred more than 75 per cent of the rural population above the age of 20 years from contesting panchayat polls. Ninety-three per cent of the women among the scheduled castes, and 82 per cent of the women overall, above 20 years, have been disqualified.

A similar number of women 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 objected to by the Congress.

Democracy – a system of government of the people, by the people and for the people – is characterised by the citizen’s right to contest for public office and her right to vote for a representative of her 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 marginalised who may not have had the wherewithal to study or build toilets in their homes are lesser citizens than the privileged, yet that is essentially what these panchayat amendments have done.

These amendments in panchayat rules have also undermined 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 out of ten people among the scheduled castes, above the age of 20, from contesting elections.

Adivasis are even worse affected, and similar numbers can be expected for Muslims, if not for other minority communities as well. 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 panchayat level as well, half of the panchas were elected unopposed. Even more shockingly, about 2,000 posts of panchas remain vacant in Haryana because no one was eligible to contest.

The numbers of unopposed candidates at panchayat, block and district levels too have increased in both Rajasthan and Haryana.

If elections imply a freedom of choice among a 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 fact.

At the same time, the amendments have finished careers of thousands of grassroot 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 not available, but of the elected representatives at the block level, more than 70 per cent and 50 per cent were disqualified in Rajasthan and Haryana respectively.

Of those elected in this election cycle, hundreds, including those at the highest level of zila parishad pramukh (district head) are mired in complaints of fake education certificates unnecessarily criminalising ordinary people and undermining the sanctity of elected public office.

The prime minister sought to defend these amendments in Parliament stating that his party was trying to bring “qualitative change” and the attempts were being unnecessarily “politicised” 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 measures.

The prime minister dismissed the political role of an elected representative – to alter power equations, build consensus, exercise judgment, prioritise the allocation of state resources – none of which are contingent on formal education, and instead favoured women’s participation only to build toilets.

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 “politicising” these amendments even though they directly disenfranchise 80 per cent of the Dalits and adivasis.

In Varanasi, in the 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 unit president of Punjab, where 30 per cent of the population is comprised of scheduled castes, the majority of whom have not passed middle school. 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 contesting elections must be lifted forthwith.