I am privileged to have been associated intimately with the evolution and implementation of Panchayati Raj from the time of Rajiv Gandhi to the present. Apart from my work as a civil servant in drafting the constitutional amendments that were eventually numbered 73rd and 74th and included in the Constitution as Parts IX (“The Panchayats”) and IXA (“The Municipalities”) (the longest and most detailed amendments made to the Constitution since its proclamation in 1950), I worked on the passage of the amendments through Parliament (1991-92) and for more than a decade (1993-2003) both on the floor of the Lok Sabha and in the Joint Select Committee (1991-92), in both the Parliament Standing Committee for Rural Development (which dealt with Panchayat Raj) as well as from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (1991-2003) which prioritised the subject under a committee chaired by D Bandyopadhyaya, former rural development secretary and later member of the Rajya Sabha.

On behalf of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, and in consultation with the Bandyopadhyaya committee, I prepared a draft Action Plan and then undertook a journey around the country addressing over forty Congress conventions seeking endorsement of the draft, which drew from Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress, the encomium that “it is truly remarkable that you have personally attended all the 40 conventions” and that “this reflects your genuine dedication to the cause of panchayats”. She added that the Action Plan reflects “your deep study of the subject and the sustained determination you have displayed.”

This was to result in her pressing for my inclusion as India’s first-ever Cabinet Minister for Panchayat Raj in Dr Manmohan Singh’s first government (2004-09). She did so in the face of some opposition from party hacks who never appreciated the significance of Panchayat Raj.

Later, Sonia suggested, and Dr Manmohan Singh approved, that I be designated chairman (2011-13) of the Expert Committee on Leveraging Panchayati Raj for the More Effective Delivery of Public Goods and Services. This Expert Committee produced a five-volume report, tantamount to an Encyclopaedia Panchayatica, which, however, moulders in forgotten cupboards since the Modi government assumed office in 2014 and has deleted the report from the website of the Panchayat Raj ministry. I propose including it in my personal website and hope the Congress will restore it and, more importantly, act on it as and when (and if ) it comes to office again. However, I confess I am disappointed that the role of Panchayat Raj in radically rehauling governance in favour of people’s participation has virtually dropped out of the current Congress vocabulary.

This is despite Rahul Gandhi having assured me in March 2013, weeks after becoming vice chairman of the party, that whereas he was only “75 per cent in agreement” with me earlier, “now I think you are 100 per cent right”. He followed this up by picking me out of the audience at the AICC convention on January 17, 2014, to announce that my championing of Panchayat Raj showed me as just the kind of Congressman who gave hope for the future of the party

That proved my swan song as the party’s Panchayat Raj icon because in August 2013, I was requested by the party president to resign my post as national convenor of the Congress’s Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Raj Sangathan (2007-13) and for the past decade my continuing Panchayat Raj work has been transformed into a personal crusade, particularly in Karnataka and Kerala.

The fact remains that it was my close involvement with the drafting of the Panchayati Raj legislation that sparked off my opting out of the IFS to take up an alternative career in politics. This has made Panchayati Raj the definitive drumbeat of my life. I don’t think any other foreign service diplomat would have made such a maverick transformation of his career. In view of this, I hope the reader will bear with me as I take him/her through the long labyrinth of thought and action that has made Panchayat Raj ineluctable, irreversible and irremovable by giving constitutional status, sanction and sanctity for local self-government in our country.

We now have about 2,60,000 institutions of democratically elected units of local self-government spread across our country. To these, we have elected some 32 lakh representatives. About 6.5 lakh of these representatives and office bearers, as sarpanch or up-sarpanch, are from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs).

Moreover, almost half the representatives in local bodies, rural and urban – that is, about 1.4 million (14 lakh) – are women, some 1,00,000 of whom hold the post of chairperson or vice chair and include over 20,000 SC/ST women. The number of women democratically elected to positions and posts of responsible governance in India is larger than the total number of elected women members in the rest of the world!

Yet this astonishing political, social, economic, cultural, civilizational, and administrative revolution – arguably the most significant since freedom came at midnight – is not widely applauded or even acknowledged within the country. I suspect this is because it has not been matched by women’s representation in our state legislatures and Parliament.8 Elite women are, therefore, not much enthused by what has been achieved for and by their humbler sisters. Most unfortunately, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its annual Human Development Report only takes account of the share of women in Parliament and the state assemblies, overlooking the social and political empowerment of 1.4 million women through reservations in the democratically elected local bodies. India would register an exponential jump on the index if elected women at the grassroots were included as a criterion for determining the extent of women’s participation in national life.

The performance of these humble and often poor women from every social segment of our highly segmented society has been so impressive that while the Constitution mandates a minimum of 33 per cent reservation of seats and posts for women (while allowing states to raise that quota, if they wish) as many as 21 states, beginning with Bihar, have equalised the representation of men and women in their local bodies. It is time to ensure through a constitutional amendment that 33 per cent is raised to 50 per cent and made mandatory across the board.

Also overdue is increasing in practice women’s representation mandatorily through appropriate constitutional and legal amendments to ensure gender justice in the state legislatures and Parliament. Not until women’s representation reaches these levels of proportion in the upper tiers of our democracy might we expect India to be regarded as home to the most outstanding example in the world of gender equality in democratic institutions of governance and government, assured and guaranteed through constitutional provisions.

Equally, at every level of Panchayat Raj in both rural and urban local bodies, it has been constitutionally ensured that elected SC representatives, and their share of representation in the local bodies, reflect their share of the population at each tier of the system and that their overall share of reserved posts reflects their share of the population at the national level. This is “elite capture” – the single most stinging criticism of local self-government in caste and gender discrimination-ridden rural society in India – sought to be elided. This also reconciles Mahatma Gandhi’s impassioned advocacy of Panchayati Raj as the foundation of our democracy and Dr Ambedkar’s equally impassioned opposition to village-based institutions which he regarded as ‘sinks of localism’ and “dens of ignorance” and as “the ruination of India” for their perpetuation of caste discrimination. Ambedkar’s view of the Indian village was dismal:

The existing village system has the effect of making the Scheduled Castes in the villages slaves of the caste Hindus . . . Under the village system the Scheduled Castes are not allowed to live inside the village. They have to live on the outskirts . . . They have no independent means of livelihood. They own no land . . . They have to do forced labour day in and day out on pain of being driven away from their quarters by the Hindu landlords . . . They have to live a life of degradation, dishonour, and ignominy from generation to generation. It is a state of eternal perdition.  

Rajiv Gandhi’s unprecedented move to base the share of seats reserved for SCs/STs in proportion to their concentration at each of the three tiers of local self-government ensured due representation for SCs/STs at each tier and in posts of chairperson/vice chairperson. It reconciled the apparently irreconcilable and diametrically opposed perspectives of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar on village India.

As for the STs, they fall into three different clusters. First, states such as those in the north-east hills and Ladakh (listed in the Sixth Schedule) where they constitute nearly the entire population. Sixth Schedule areas are exempted from the 73rd Amendment to enable their own local tribal governance systems to prevail. Second, there are concentrations of tribal populations in nine composite states identified in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution where PESA – “The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996” applies, which exempts these tribal habitats from the 73rd Amendment and makes special provisions for exclusively tribal panchayats to act autonomously. Third, states other than these nine states where scattered ST habitations form an integral part of non-ST panchayat areas. In this third category, the same reservation provisions apply to the SC.

Excerpted with permission from The Rajiv I Knew and Why he was India’s Most Misunderstood Prime Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Juggernaut.