India has developed a rich tradition of Parliamentary democracy over the past sixty years or so. However, time and again we face major disruptions and challenges to the form of government that our founding fathers established. It might therefore be worthwhile to examine whether there was any alternative form of democracy we could have adopted at the time of independence.
Granville Austin’s Cornerstone of a Nation (one of the best books on the framing of India’s Constitution) mentions that there was in fact another alternative: finding indigenous institutions capable of meeting the country’s needs. This would most likely mean that the village would be the basis of the Constitution, and we would have a decentralised and indirect form of government. The chief exponent of this was Mahatma Gandhi.
The book goes on to say that though Gandhi never believed that life in the villages was ideal (it needed to be reformed socially and economically), according to him, only in a village can man lead a life of simplicity and follow the right code of conduct.
Gandhi submitted two plans, in 1946, and in 1948 (incidentally on the day of his murder). The 2nd plan would have disbanded the Indian National Congress as ‘a propaganda vehicle and a parliamentary machine’ and turned it into a social service machine based on a nation-wide network of panchayats. Needless to say, the party did not accept Gandhi’s position.
One follower of Gandhi, Shriman Narayan Agarwal, drafted a “Gandhian Constitution for Free India”. It was based on the principle that ‘violence leads to centralisation; the essence of non-violence is decentralisation. In his draft Constitution, the primary political unit would be the village panchayat (panchayat members would be elected by the village elders). The panchayat would control the watchmen, the people who kept the land and tax records, and the police and schools. The panchayat would also assess and collect land revenue, supervise farming and irrigation, and also village industries.
Village panchayats would be part of the district panchayats who would elect leaders to the provincial panchayats who would choose a president to serve as the head of the provincial government, or state. Presidents of these state panchayats would include an all-India Panchayat whose head would be the head of the national government. The idea was that the state should be minimalist, (as a necessary evil) to perform certain essential functions, while all other aspects of decision-making should be left to the panchayats.
While reading through this, I was struck by the kind of solutions it offered to so many problems within our present system of government: (a) policies being framed by those who have minimal contact with those who it will affect, (b) finances for every policy or project being controlled by someone in the bureaucracy (who, instead of being accountable to the beneficiaries, is answerable to some other bureaucrat who is even further removed from the beneficiaries), (c) and the consequent mess of ineffective laws, weak implementation, and inefficient allocation of resources.
However, to me the Gandhian constitution fails on one crucial count: the absence of universal adult franchise.
By envisaging that only the village elders would have a say in the composition of the Panchayats, and depriving the general population of the village of a say in their own governance this system would relegate India back to the age-old problems of stagnation and social obscurantism. Selected exercise of franchise by a notable few would merely create an oligarchy within villages, where those already in power get to frame policies which will ensure their continuation in power, instead of bringing about a social and economic transformation.