Abstract: Political decentralization and political autonomy are sometimes used interchangeably in arguments asserting the need for greater devolution of power in India. In this write up I argue that such linkage or casual interpretation is not in favour of healthy political discourse in India. I assert that we need to use the term Panchayati Raj and only that term when talking about grass root democracy which is desirable. But we should not look at state autonomy as a solution to some of our governance problems. State autonomy I assert is of negative consequence and leads to a nation within a nation sort of discourse which I call a kind of Satrap system not suitable for a large diverse democratic nation like ours which is unique in the world.
One of the issues at stake in our national discourse today is that of political decentralization and political autonomy which are sometimes used interchangeably. Mahatma Gandhi was a proponent of political decentralization, what he called Gram Swaraj. I do not claim to know what Gandhiji really meant by all that he said, but herein you find a statement which is revealing “the 7 lakh villages should be self sufficient as village republics”. From this statement one can draw an intuitive understanding of a model of democracy that includes the people in deciding what is best for their immediate needs, rather than one that separates the state from the people and create a situation where people are dependent on a hierarchical system of governance even for their basic needs.
This idea is what was called Panchayati Raj and strengthening of this institution was made a part of directive principles of state policy in our constitution at the time of framing of the constitution. The 73rd amendment of the constitution changes were made in '92 to overcome some of the reasons why Panchayati Raj Institutions(PRI) were not functioning as expected, like absence of regular elections, insufficient representation SC/ST and women, inadequate devolution of powers and lack of financial resources. As per this amendment a 3 tier system of village, block and district level panchayats are setup. However more than 20 years after this amendment which was considered historic at that point of time the Prime Minister still had to make a speech recently urging center and states to “strengthen the panchayats” rather than be able to proudly commend them on their achievements in last 20 years. These issues are variously cited as to why the system is still not considered effective:-
a) State governments are not devolving enough responsibilities and the center cannot force the state governments because these fall is states domain.
b) Members are not sufficiently trained and do not know their powers and responsibilities sufficiently.
c) Elected women are being represented by their husbands.
d) Non cooperation of bureaucracy
e) Major projects are implemented by the state government without involving the PRIs.
This is a short list of issues but I am sure people who are actually involved with PRIs know much better.
Whenever I hear about the term decentralization of India being uttered especially in foreign academic circles (Sugata Bose et al) I hear it being accompanied with the term ‘autonomy’. This ‘autonomy’ is being pushed as the magic pill that will solve all of India’s problems. So for Jammu and Kashmir there is an autonomy solution, for Nagaland there is an autonomy solution and there is a domino effect of this demand in all the insurgency affected and even some non-insurgency affected states where on and off demand for autonomy are raised. Late Jyoti Basu former CM of West Bengal was a known supporter of ‘greater autonomy’ to the states especially to J&K. The greatest affront which I find in these arguments is a selective use of history to make a sweeping statement that India never had a ‘Unitary’ state and was instead always ruled as autonomous units. There are certain assumptions in this statement. The first assumption, which is incorrect, is that India today has a unitary form of government. The truth is that we are a federal state not unitary. The second assertion that India always had autonomous units is being used as a suggestion that it is good to have autonomy at state level, where the states have internal autonomy for everything and the center is limited to the triad of ‘Foreign Affairs, Defense and Finance(currency)’. This extreme arrangement is something most people will have serious exception with. Such an arrangement with article 370 like provisions is what I would call division of India into Satraps, since this kind of autonomy is a question of sovereignty rather than governance. This leads to the notion of nation within a nation. It smells of an argument for creating various levels of sovereignty which is logical path to choose only for an outside power ruling over foreign land, the characteristic of which is leaving autocratic governors for the Satraps for indirect rule and extraction of tribute to keep the top most sovereign relevant. But this arrangement is entirely unsuitable for integration of a democratic nation. The sovereignty of the elected government of a democracy has to be absolute no only to be able to serve the interest of the people internationally but also to keep the movement of wheel of progress continuous in the entire nation as per the collective will of all the people of the country. This wheel like our notion of Dharma Chakra includes everything good that people desire in their lives. No one should be deprived of such progress which is something that can never be guaranteed in a structure with such autonomous satraps.
Autonomy has been variously proposed in the past, say with the cabinet mission plan of 1946 which was in my view rightly rejected, in J&K where we have seen the result and is being demanded today by NSCN/IM insurgents. It is considered by some as the root cause of alienation in J&K rather than the other way round as proposed by some others. It is logical to see that when such an arrangement is made, then the first thing the state government tries to do, is to limit migration to the state and turns itself into more of what I call a ‘hermit state’ within the Indian union. Citizens of the country can migrate to another country and become legal foreign nationals but can never migrate to such states within the country itself. Economic and cultural delinking of the state with the rest of the country then follows. In J&K for example the residents of the other states were referred to as Indians while the Kashmiri’s would give their regional identities more importance long before any whiff of insurgency was felt in J&K. We have seen an incomplete integration of J&K or rather gradual separation since independence which has lead to such identity issues as we see among some Kashmirs today. There are few other states where various degrees of state subject laws apply like Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim. I do not think any such migration restrictions applied to India in historical times otherwise we would not have such a diverse culture and diverse population which exist in the country today. You can find many ethnic minorities in each and every state of the country which have been living in that state for centuries, where as, they may be represented as ethnic majority in some other state. This is true even in these autonomous or semi-autonomous states that we have today.
The kind of political autonomy to the states which is being talked about increasingly in foreign and also Indian ‘intellectual circles’ as a way to go forward in my view will not lead to better governance for the people. What it will lead to is autocratic state governments, regional identity politics at the cost of nationalism and national interest, marginalization of and attacks on ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious minorities of the state as has happened in J&K, strong feeling of separatism, opportunity for foreign intervention and perhaps a complete balkanization as happened to a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. India of course is not Yugoslavia we are certainly hugely better integrated. Our integration is civilizational not just political and has occurred over several millennia. There are several threads that tie the various beads of India together; perhaps the beads themselves are made of the thread that ties them. Using a term which Rajiv Malhotra has made famous I would say that we perhaps truly have what will be called an Integral Unity. In my view it is not possible to separate the beads without completely changing the character of India itself. Trying to break down India is a never ending exercise because there can be no two views which will match on what would constitute a truly independent and separate or autonomous part of India. You can literally break down into thousands of separate identities not just 10-15 hence balkanizing India is not going to bring any peace or prosperity for the people of the nation. Autonomy similarly will not bring any lasting peace or prosperity to the people. Even in a state like Sikkim which does not have any outside migration and has been largely successfully integrated into the Indian union we have elements of majority minority tensions existing though not very pronounced, certainly not like the kind which exists in J&K.
The political integration of India after independence done by the states ministry under Sardar Patel was the single most important political exercise in the history of post partition India. In modern times this exercise and the enactment of the constitution is what would be termed as the emergence of a Chakravartin in India. The Dharma Chakra in the tricolor is not bereft of the symbolic importance of this Chakravartin for our national integration and rule of law within our nation’s boundaries. For me the Ashoka Chakra has always been the most important symbol in our tricolor. The constitution is what guarantees that the wheel of law can move freely without interruption in our great country. This is why changes to the constitution which will make our savior and protector weaker is something we should always guard against. I am all for Panchayti Raj which I would say is a non translatable term for our kind of decentralization but I am certainly not in favour of state autonomy which will perhaps lead us back to the time of Western and Northern Satraps of historic times and the wheel of law will be found wanting in the country and leave us vulnerable to outside intervention and control.