Democracy has to be part of dev: Aiyar

By Kamal Ahmed | Update:

04e637de80c804df476e6ce395f543c4-IMG_3267Former Indian minister and Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar has termed the argument of development devoid of democracy a bogus one. He thinks the people in any of the South Asian countries want freedom alongside development.

“If you want freedom, then democracy has to be a part of the development process. Otherwise, the people at the bottom will not benefit from development,” he said in an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo.

Aiyar is a former minister who was responsible for Panchayet affairs and petroleum ministry. He came to Dhaka last week to attend a number of seminars on local government affairs. While talking to Prothom Alo, he touched on a wide range of issues including Bangladesh-India relations. The full text of the interview is given below:

Prothom Alo: I want to start with your area of expertise, which is local government. In India, what is the main reason for the success of local government? There are a very strong local government institutions functioning.

Mani Shankar Aiyar: I wouldn’t agree with you that it is a success. We have our success, but there is still quite a lot of work to do. The biggest success is that we have made Panchayati Raj ineluctable, irremovable, and irreversible - by putting into the constitution. In consequence of which we have 32 lakh (3.2million) elected representatives in the Panchayats. And we also have 1.6 million women and we have very adequate representation of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and in most states for the other backward classes; so this combination, democracy and affirmative action have given us true democracy at the grassroots, but it has not yet given us true development at the grassroots. Because while the constitution had mandatory provisions, but the establishment of Panchayati Raj institutions, was left to the state legislatures and the state government to undertake the economic and administrative empowerment of these institutions of the local government; and there the performance of the state government has varied a great deal -- from leaders like Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and to laggards like Utter Pradesh. But I’m glad to say over the last 25 years, while major differences in performances between states remain, all states have moved forward, compared to where they were, say in 1993 or 1994. So it’s encouraging.

P Alo: How’s it possible; Because politicians, especially MPs don’t like to cede power to anyone else?

Aiyar: Well, it was because of the MPs, that we’ve managed to bring constitutional amendments. So I don’t think the MPs are as adversely affected as the state politicians. The MLs, who do feel threatened, by alternative centres of power in their respective segments and districts, and that is a battle which has been effectively won by the local governments in the successful states, and been badly lost by the local governments, where the states have not been progressive.

P Alo: Can you name one or two states?  

Aiyar: Well, I think it’s very well known that Kerala and Karnataka is in the front rank, but I would add to that several other states - Tripura, in north-east India, which is doing outstandingly well, Sikkim, which is always been a front runner for a very long time ...

P Alo: What about West Bengal?

Aiyar: I’ll come to that. Madhapradesh has also done well, but among the worst states, I would say, are Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha --- these states have been very very poor. West Bengal was the pioneer, and was responsible for the communists remaining in power for more than three decades there, but in the later half of their rule, the gundas (goons) took over. And all these gundas have shifted their allegiance to the Trinamool Congress. So where West Bengal was far end way -- the number one in Panchayati Raj -- I think, is going to the capture of the Panchayati Raj institutions by anti-social elements. There has been a very strong backward movement in West Bengal.

P Alo: Why did it happen?

Aiyar: It happened because although the communists came to power, owing to the urban vote, at the work of the proletariat, the organised workers, Jyoti Basu realised that rural Bengal would not be with him unless he did something special for them.

And so he started this effective Panchayati Raj system there. And over time, the anti-social elements, found that by being the army of the left on the ground, they could capture power in the local bodies. And once the Trinamool Congress started moving forward, then they found the same communist gundas, could be used by them to run the local body system. So there is an unfortunate nexus that has developed between anti-social elements and the Panchayat institutions in Bengal. But that hasn’t happen in Kerala, where communists are very prominent, and in Tripura, which has now taken over Bengal in terms of the number of years in communist rule, they have done a superb system, and I really congratulate Manik Sarkar, on the achievement there.

P Alo: So, it’s now on the part of the politicians of the respective states, the failure and the success of the system depends on…

Aiyar: Absolutely. But it also is how strong the local bodies are. You see in Kerala and in Karnataka the members of the local Panchayats formed themselves into union. So their collective voice is very strong. An individual panche’s voice counts for nothing. But the collective voice of the Panchayats is 32 lakh (3.2m) compared to 500 MPs or 4500 MLs. So in the end, since democracy is a game of numbers, local governments will win. But it will not be a revolution, but a reform. So maybe we won’t see full Panchayati Raj in our lifetimes, but by the time of our grand children. I’m sure that Panchayats will prevail over legislature.

P Alo: You’ve mentioned you might not see in your lifetime the Panchayats, what kind of Panchayat do you visualise in that respect?

Aiyar: I visualise a Panchayat Raj where four or five basic conditions are fulfilled. Number one in representation. 

P Alo: Direct representation?

Aiyar: In direct electoral representation, we must have at least 50 per cent women. They are after all half the population. In India we have to recognise that the schedule cast and the schedule tribes have been oppressed, very badly oppressed socially for the last 5,000 years. So they must be given a special place. Increasingly there is recognition, that the other backward classes also need special treatments in the Panchayats that is being given, and that in composite states like the old Bihar, states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisah where there are very heavy tribal concentrations, then the Panchayat’s extensions to scheduled areas act 1996, which is a complement to the constitution, those must be effectively implemented. So the first and most important thing is adequate representation to prevent elite capture. The second condition is the Gramsabhas and the various forms of the Ward Sabhas etc. must become very strong parliaments. They are the ones who hold the elected representatives responsible. That’s the second condition.

P Alo: Yes, the question is I was reading your lecture you gave at the Brown University, comparing China’s and Indian local governments, and your conclusion in that was that Chinese local government is an effective one and the Indian is a democratic one.

Aiyar: I said efficient one.

P Alo: Efficient one, so, yes. In terms of efficiency, which has democratic deficiency, how do you …

Aiyar: Well, my answer to you is - China is a one party system, it’s a vicious dictatorship, there are four or five thousand executions every year. And any time there is any kind of ­­protest that is quickly quelled. Therefore when an order goes out to Beijing, it reaches the villages almost in real time simultaneously; and it shows implementation. So, yes, it’s a more efficient system. But it’s a completely undemocratic system. If you are not a member of the Communist Party, you can’t hold elective office. I think China and other parts of eastern and south-eastern Asia, Confucian ethic has prevailed, and it is an authoritarian and hierarchical ethic. Where as in South Asia not only India or Bangladesh, but really the whole region, there has been a civilizational tradition of democracy. So we are ill suited authoritarian, we are much more easily suited to the democratic system.

P Alo: But a debate is going on, especially in Bangladesh, I don’t want to draw you in Bangladesh’s political dialogues or discourses but the philosophy in being discussed heavily and we are seeing civil society moving towards that development gets priority not democracy. 

Aiyar: I think that’s a totally bogus argument, I’m not talking about Bangladesh, I’m talking about it generally, a totally bogus argument because …

P Alo: But if it is bogus then why did you say Singapore has succeeded?

Aiyar: We can look at that separately. Singapore is part of the Confucian system. Here take Bangladesh, every time there is military rule, how restive you get? How you welcome democratic rule when it comes? Bangladesh or Pakistan, Nepal or Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or Bhutan will accept authoritarian rule for long? Like all of us, India too is fundamentally democratic. They want freedom, but they also want development, and if you want freedom, then democracy has to be a part of the development process. Otherwise, the people at the bottom will not benefit from development. You have to have inclusive governance, which is democracy, in order to get inclusive development, which is efficiency, we south

Asians are independent-minded and not ready to accept any authoritarian regime.   

P Alo: How do you evaluate the current state of the Indo-Bangla relations?


Aiyar:  Relations between our two countries have improved a lot in recent years. Exchanging enclaves, what Congress wanted to complete, but was stalled and later done by the Modi government was a big step. It was quite astonishing that it took us so many decades to resolve. For deeper economic cooperation things have not moved at desired pace. In 1972, we had agreed to promote jute in the global market jointly and after 44 years, I heard, that it was still on the agenda in our cooperation dialogue. There are some areas where we need to trust each other. Recently, some experts have raised questions about Bangladesh's addition of two Chinese submarines. In my view, Bangladesh has every right to procure whatever they want and from where ever they wish. Why Bangladesh needs submarines when it is largely surrounded by India is a question that we have to ask ourselves. Why we have not been able to earn that trust?


P Alo: It has been alleged that in late 2013 and early 2014 when you and your party, Congress were in power, you supported holding of elections in Bangladesh arguing for constitutional continuity despite that process failed to be an inclusive one. Many observers suggest that has harmed India's image among a large number of Bangladeshis. How do you respond to it?


Aiyar: These allegations are not true. Bangladesh's election was entirely her internal affair. It was up to the political forces of Bangladesh to decide how inclusive their democracy should be. The most unfortunate thing is when the BNP loses in elections India is blamed. But, this is not true. Whether Awami League or the BNP, whichever party gets elected their success depends on Bangladeshis. India maintained very good relations with both regimes under Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. India faces similar problems with its other neighbours too, may it be Nepal, or the Maldives or Sri Lanka.


If anyone from India tried to interfere in Bangladesh's 2014 elections then that is quite deplorable and I absolutely condemn it. I think, these allegations are wrong. And, there is no reason to take any position against a fair democratic process.   


P Alo: You are probably aware about the controversy centering the Rampal power project. Don't you think it will further harm India's image?


Aiyar: Well, it is not the Indian government who is pursuing this project. It is the Bangladesh government with whom this issue should be raised.  Those environmentalists who have been raising concerns on the Sundarban's future and opposing it should press the Bangladesh government on the issue.


P Alo: Thank you for giving us time and speaking to us.


Aiyar:  Thank you too!

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