By Biswaraj Patnaik in Puri, January 21, 2022: A village or gram panchayat, headed by a sarpanch, is typically responsible for the administration of agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, drinking water, sanitation, roads, primary healthcare, small-scale industries, social welfare and education in the village.

The 73rd Constitutional amendment has granted enormous power to the ‘Sarpanch’ who used to be kicked around by the Bloc Development Officer (BDO) and at as much as by the village lever worker, the lowest ranking public official because Sarpanches, more specifically women among them, would know nothing about governance. The majority of the PRI officials, vastly ignorant of inherent powers, are only proxy creatures being ruthlessly controlled by the local MLAs or MPs depending upon who wields greater power by flexing financial or physical muscles. These puppets would never be told they are empowered formally to be boss of their affairs in the domains mentioned in previous lines.

Gandhi had dreamed of the much coveted and widely tested ‘Gram Swaraj’ strongly in place since the ancient times under all kinds of monarchies-compassionate, cruel and indifferent. The idea of forming large groups or factions of people to advocate for their shared interests is fairly ancient. This led to formation of political parties with their own people-friendly ideologies and pre-election manifestos.

In ancient times, more than the villages, townships were heavily politicised like in Classical Athens during the days of Plato and Aristotle. The modern-day political parties have emerged around the end of the 18th century only. They have first appeared in Europe and the United States of America. The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Party of the United States both frequently called the world’s “oldest continuous political party have inspired people to form political outfits to serve the common folks.

Local self government in India essentially refers to governmental jurisdictions below the level of the state. India is a federal republic with three distinct spheres of government- central, state and local. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments give recognition and protection to local governments and empower states to have their own local government legislation.

The 1992 historic amendments has given full autonomy to two very distinct forms-urban localities having Nagar Palikas that derive powers from the individual state governments the same way as the rural localities derive absolute authority as formalized under the panchayati raj system.

Since ancient times, the village governance in India was shouldered by the ‘Panchas’ meaning five publicly accepted wise leaders. The village community would select rather than elect the ‘Panchas’ unanimously to govern the village affairs. The critical qualities looked for in the panchas were: character, truthfulness, benevolence, non-favouritism and skills of delivering justice without prejudice or bias. This practice remained in place until the constitutional amendments emboldened the chosen local leaders.

Thus, the neighbourhood guy or girl, known for being knowledgeable and do-gooder is kind of forced to take the reins of power. It so happened, until the recent times of wicked, corrupt political activities became the rule, the fellows chosen by the community would hide lest he or she should fail to deliver to the fellow beings’ expectations.

The founding fathers of the independent India, while drafting the Constitution, did discuss the critical local governance issues, but never gave any formal sanctity to making elections party-less and non-sectarian. Successive rulers left the matter hanging. Fortunately however, most states ensured local government elections were fought without any party affiliation or support.

No one knows why the Biju Patnaik government of the 1990s put the Zilla Paris had tier into the political party fold which has been causing irreparable damage to the beautiful tradition of the people choosing the leader by unanimity to ensure unity and harmony among diverse groups of people in the village, co-operation between the different sections of the locality and to keep away battles due to party politics.

Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhabe had been great advocates of this ‘local good guy to govern’ philosophy all their lives. Whenever Panchayat or urban civic elections have been held on party affiliations, the grassroots institutions have degenerated into subordinate units of the colossal state. Ambedkar had expressed huge apprehensions about the panchayat raj elections making clear the elite would capture all power on caste and class divisions thereby heaping only injustice on the marginalised sections of the community.

In Gujarat, a scheme called ‘Binharif’ was introduced in 1992 which made sure only uncontested elections should happen by choosing wise persons by consensus. Any Panchayat resorting to this people-friendly practice was awarded cash prizes between 2 and 5 lakh rupees. If women were chosen a bigger prize money would be awarded. When Modi became chief minister, the name of the scheme was changed to ‘Samras’ in the year 2001, the aim being the encouragement of unanimous selection of members to GPs saving great deal of money and labour and above all communal discord and conflicts.

The Naveen Patnaik administration in Odisha is a unique one in the sense it has been enjoying such enviable public adulation as seen nowhere else for the last twenty two years across five general elections with an ascending order of popularity. With this never known, never seen absolute power and authority, the local self governance elections be made nonnegotiable party-less to make grassroots democracy truly functional.

Odisha should outclass Gujarat in facilitating local self governance systems absolutely clean as Gandhiji dreamed. His father, the legendary Biju Patnaik was misguided by wicked political colleagues to putting the Zilla Parishad polls onto party affiliation mode, only to attain private gains by creating battle grounds on locations where, for centuries, only calm, quiet and best communal harmony had prevailed.

As of today, during a terrible pandemic, everyone is living in fear. But the way the Odisha state local self government polls have been declared, every other political party is bracing up for violent battles to grab seats which makes looting public money so highly possible. The prospects of people proudly choosing likeable next door guys to govern them joyfully have all diminished. The little republics can never be built. The local self governments will be only make-believe. Party crooks will never ever make Gandhi’s dream come true.

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