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The Hindu on : Democratisation or disempowerment?

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, December 22, 2000

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Democratisation or disempowerment?

By Smita Gupta

UNDER GLOBALISATION, Mr. L. K. Advani has posed `developmental nationalism' as the Right Wing response to `economic nationalism'. The appeal for a coming together of like-minded people to resist this in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment in the Narmada dam case is welcome. There can be little disagreement that when a real and progressive consensus across socio-economi-cally/politically differentiated groups is possible, political `purity' or a `cowboy' romanticism of `conflict' must not vitiate it. This has led to far too many painful `historic blunders'. The worry really is that a post- Gramscian appeal for more consensual politics may land us in the lap of the hegemonic World Bank universalism of `transcendental marketism', unless rooted in an alternative model of development, based on economic nationalism, democratisation of the state and egalitarianism.

The consensus has to be around a real commonality of interests. The perspective must be the needs/interests of the most deprived sections of society, not because others don't matter, but because they have the greatest stake. The neo-liberal universalism around market-led growth obfuscates its inherent regressive redistributive policy and presents itself as the only and best solution for all nations, classes, social groups and policy objectives of growth, equity and sustainability. Poverty is an outcome of innocent oversight rather than structural, and development policy is non-ideological and pluralistic rather than a contestation over contending models.

This is completely different from the Nehruvian consensus across the economic and political spectrum, in important ways the result of the broad-based national movement forged and spearheaded by Gandhiji. Economic growth without the alleviation of poverty would belie the hopes of millions who had participated in the freedom struggle. The hope of delivering growth with equity led to the post-independence consensus on state-led central planning.

Today, every concept comes in the guise of its exact opposite, disempowerment as empowerment, authoritarianism as democracy, centralisation as decentralisation, the list is almost endless. The building of a progressive consensus has to be mindful of this maze, which is only possible when every issue is viewed through the lens of the oppressed and the marginalised.

Take, for instance, legal reform. After an accurate description of the inadequacy of the judicial system to be just, the prescription is to replace the rule-of-state-law with the rule-of-law state, implying the replacement of protective legislation by laws to suppress dissent and discipline workers.

Another example is the sine qua non for the eradication of poverty, `good (read predictable, pliant and efficient) governance' rather than `local self-government' (the British Raj too posed this dichotomy!). In the post-cold war era communism or population can no longer be blamed for world poverty, and the World Bank has discovered bad and corrupt governance as the latest culprit. The tremendous strides made by the `right to information' campaign in exposing corruption in poverty alleviation rural programmes and the consequent denial of survival rights cannot be undermined.

As incontrovertible, however, is the need to move beyond reprehensible but local graft to less comfortable global/national issues, which too violate the right to subsistence. These include public policy; public sector disinvestment; natural resource privatisation; opacity of MNCs; confidentiality clauses of the World Bank, etc.; huge developmental NGOs accountable to no one but their distant foreign donors; etc. This is the paradox of going local in a global era, when `good governance' is the misnomer for more opaque and centralised governance.

There is a distance in non-party political formations between the opposition to the model of development through agitation and the construction of alternatives through actual service delivery. This gives rise to several anomalies.

Take for instance the NGO-executed watershed programmes. There is no dearth of perfectly designed and passionately advocated micro- watershed blueprints. These are accompanied by an odd hesitation in the identification of elected local bodies as their institutional underpinning, on the basis of eloquent and precise Ambedkarite treatises on the village.

This, however, limits the critical role social action and NGOs have in the emergence of the alternative development strategy. Once the political and economic significance of local democracy is accepted, the question is no longer, ``can panchayats do it'', but ``how can panchayats be enabled to do it?'' This will follow from a realisation that development alternatives cannot be autonomised from the question of state power or de-linked from other aspects of development.

This is really in consonance with Gandhiji's view of village democracy as the most feasible and durable bulwarks against imperialism and authoritarianism. Gandhiji is often criticised on grounds of historical veracity and as Utopian. These criticisms remain partial in that they miss his fundamental insights. (1) Swaraj is the basis, the means and the end of democratic development. (2) Panchayats link local democracy to development. (3) Panchayats mount local resistance to imperialism. (4) The most appropriate site for the oppressed to stake claims to equity. (5) The politics of democratisation as inclusive through broad-based consensual alliances that channel discontent as protest against the main `enemy' or principle contradiction.

Implicit is the view of panchayats as bodies that mediate and not suppress discontent for more focussed targeting, most feasible in a situation where some degree of asset redistribution in favour of the poor has preceded decentralisation.

Decentralisation is an integral part of an alternative development strategy for India, aimed aggressively towards participatory ecological, social and economic development through public investment via empowered elected local bodies. This will give the people a stake in the upholding/preservation of democratic institutions, and generate genuine participation, which is the necessary foundation for a more accountable and transparent state capable of making the poor influence the exercise of state power over policy and resources.

If we accept the deeply contested and inherently political nature of development we must accept conflict. The importance of addressing state power and more consensual resistance could involve inclusive progressive politics, that does not necessarily involve a shift from mobilisation around class or gender issues to non-antagonistic or non-conflictual politics. In the absence of collective assertion, however, why should deprivation be of any consequence to the beneficiaries and gainers from that very inequality?

There are broadly three ways in which local democracy is undermined by globalisation. (1) Violation of the federal principle: the Union Government interprets decentralisation as the States devolving powers to local bodies, not the Centre to the States! (2) Panchayats as toothless bodies: handing over functions without powers and personnel for their execution. (3) Transfer of resources to parallel agencies. Demonstrating the indisputable shortcomings of the state as an agency for delivering basic needs, on grounds of efficiency and better targeting, the prescriptions are: (a) Decentralisation to NGOs; with no accountability or even reference to elected local bodies. (b) Decentralisation to nominated committees; legally empowered committees, often comprising handpicked members, deliver specified basic needs, bypassing the local body. (c) Decentralisation to the gram sabha; executive powers are handed over to the gram sabha, quorum clauses are easily subverted, legally and extra-legally.

The importance of democratic decentralisation for economic sovereignty cannot be overemphasised, in a praxis that transcends the appealing but simplistic dichotomy of conflict versus consensus. Social action that is not cognitive of this in the neo-liberal environment could well become abdication at best, and cooption in fact.

(The writer, an economist, is at present on an assignment with the Kerala Planning Board.)

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