1. The panchayati raj institutions acquired constitutional status through the 73rd Amendment, 1993 and the subsequent Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996. In official discourse, the panchayats are celebrated as a model of democratic decentralisation or decentralisation of power. The ‘power’ in the case of panchayats does not however refer to any kind of policy-making or plan-formulating function; it essentially denotes only power to implement schemes and policies that are decided by the central and state governments. Within this limited framework, the panchayats deal with 29 subjects covering a broad spectrum of basic services. Decentralisation of power or democracy should therefore be understood only in the sense of delegation of responsibilities and devolution of funds.
2. The Gram Sabhas under PESA are of course supposed to enjoy considerably greater power including the right to be consulted in matters of land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement and mandatory power of recommendation before any mining licence is granted within its jurisdiction. But in real life the Gram Sabhas whether under PESA or under PRIs governed by the 73rd Amendment remain the most neglected and violated aspect of the panchayati raj. The ongoing massive mining loot in tribal-inhabited mineral-rich areas and the countrywide corporate land-grab campaign tell the true story of the mockery of the powers of Gram Sabhas and panchayati raj institutions. More powers to panchayats must first of all mean more powers to and respect for Gram Sabhas and the latter must have a direct say in the implementation of every scheme concerning the rural poor.
3. While the claim of panchayats providing a platform of direct or participatory democracy at the grassroots is utterly untrue, there has clearly been a huge expansion in terms of elected representation. With 50% reservation of seats for women, apart from reservation for SC/ST and OBCs, the ambit of representation has also clearly expanded. The panchayats have thus definitely facilitated the entry of large numbers of common people, especially women, in public life and ignited democratic aspirations among the masses.
4. But the mobilisation and assertion of the people within the panchayats cannot happen spontaneously – it has to be organised consciously and herein lies the great role of class struggle and of the Communist Party. The ruling classes on the other hand try to obfuscate and obstruct this process in the name of partyless panchayats and by extending their own class network through a corrupt nexus of officials, panchayat functionaries and middlemen, contractors and dealers. The panchayats have been a key instrument in the hands of the ruling classes in deepening their penetration and strengthening their network. Even Gram Sabhas, idealised by many as village republics, are very much subjected to the forces and processes of caste, class and gender hierarchy and domination. Any non-class or supra-class illusion about panchayats will therefore prove suicidal for the revolutionary movement – the revolutionary class line must be practised in real earnest to turn the panchayats into a platform of counter-mobilisation of the masses to defeat the dominant powers.
5. The rise of panchayats as the centre of rural political life has brought in its wake a whole set of new contradictions and issues. The contradiction between the common people and the nexus that usually controls the panchayat and often misappropriates much of the funds is a most common feature in most panchayats. In many places, the district and block administration tries to bypass or overrule elected panchayat representatives. More often than not women representatives are sought to be used as figureheads or pawns by powerful male family members, while the feudal-kulak lobby seeks to coerce or co-opt representatives from dalits and extremely backward castes by exercising their power and influence. And then every scheme administered through the panchayats, even if implemented honestly, invariably generates mass grievances because of the sheer mismatch of demand and supply. Unless these contradictions are properly grasped and handled by relying on the people and keeping revolutionary communist politics in command, even long-standing leaders of people’s struggles run the risk of being corrupted by and assimilated in the ruling class scheme of panchayat politics.
6. For years there was no panchayat system in Bihar and Jharkhand. The system was introduced in Bihar only in 2001 and Jharkhand had its first panchayat elections only in 2011. Our performance in panchayat elections has been better in Jharkhand than in Bihar. In Bihar we have been winning in the range of 15 20 Zila Parishad seats, 100-125 Mukhiya (directly elected panchayat president) seats, and 100-150 panchayat samiti members. In Jharkhand we won 20 ZP seats, 144 PS seats and 120 Mukhiya seats. Subsequently, we could win the chairperson post in Garhwa district while losing the chairperson post in Koderma in a tie and finishing third in Chairperson post and second in vice-chairperson post in Giridih district where we have a powerful opposition group of 8 ZP members. In Jharkhand we also won the Block Pramukh (president of panchayat samiti) post in 5 blocks. In other states our scale of success in panchayat elections is still very low.
7. More than winning elections, the main challenge in the panchayat arena is how we use these victories in the interest of the movement. Our Party line clearly enjoins us to use the panchayats as a platform of class struggle, as organs of service to the people, of struggle for people’s rights and resistance to the dominant feudal-kulak power and the state led by the big bourgeoisie. Party members elected in various levels of Panchayats must strictly implement the Party line and subordinate themselves to committee discipline and mass supervision. Following the serious discussion initiated in the Bardhaman convention (2006) and subsequently in the 8th Congress (2007) and the July 28 call of 2010, there has been some improvement on this score, but much remains to be done.
8. The whole Party, especially the state and district committees of the Party must pay much greater attention to our panchayat practice and guide and help the block and panchayat-level committees in integrating our panchayat practice with extra-panchayat mass action and the Party’s overall political line. There have been a few recent instances of combining our representation and intervention in panchayats with successful mass political mobilisation. In Garwah district, our chairperson Com. Sushma Mehta was abducted by an armed group of Maoists while the police wrongfully arrested one of our Mukhiyas charging him with complicity with the Maoists. In the face of a powerful mass protest Maoists had to free Com. Sushma and other abductees even though the arrested Mukhiya is still in jail. All parties of the ruling classes including the Congress and the BJP have conspired to topple the district council by bringing in no-confidence motion, but such moves have so far been successfully foiled. In Birni block of Giridih district, elected panchayat representatives led a powerful mass agitation for restoration of electricity supply. In a panchayat in Sandesh block in Bhojpur, panchayat representatives successfully forced the block and district administration to delete non-deserving names from the BPL list. In a couple of panchayats in Patna district, our Mukhiyas successfully defied feudal resistance and administrative pressure to distribute diesel subsidy among tenants, eventually forcing the state government to change its policy and extend subsidies to all tenants.
9. The best experiences of intervention in and utilisation of panchayat have come from areas where there is a strong Party organisation and a live environment of struggles and popular assertion. The moot question is how to integrate the panchayat work with the perspective and priorities of class struggle in the area. Only by subordinating the panchayat work to the extra-panchayat perspective and priorities of struggle can we strengthen the movement and make sure that the people can prevail and defeat the feudal-kulak design to subordinate the panchayat to its interests. Where we lose this perspective, Party committees are reduced to panchayat managing agencies and the schemes of the panchayat begin to overshadow the agenda of class struggle.
10. It must also be clearly grasped that the task of using the panchayats as platforms of struggle cannot be accomplished just by concerned Party committees. The key question is to subject the panchayat to the constant assertion and supervision of the people. Party committees and the network of mass organisations must work in tandem to exert constant mass pressure on panchayats. The Gram Sabha could be a particularly useful forum for this purpose. Also, we must not remain preoccupied only with panchayats run by our comrades, but focus our attention on the panchayat system as a whole. Unlike the Parliament and State Assemblies, the people have much closer and more organic ties with panchayats. To highlight key demands and press for resolution of mass grievances we can and should frequently also make panchayats the centre of state-wide or district-wide mobilisation.
11. We must also lay emphasis on securing greater powers for panchayats and for a system of adequate allowances for panchayat representatives as are provided for MLAs and MPs. For all practical purposes, powers are still concentrated in the hands of the state government and district administration. Panchayats challenging the institutionalised system of corruption have to face nothing short of an administrative embargo. We must always rally the people against every instance of bureaucratic vendetta or administrative highhandedness. It is only through such bold political confrontation with higher authorities that democracy in the panchayats can be defended and expanded.