What Rahul Gandhi wants

Written by Mani Shankar Aiyar | Updated: Feb 11 2014, 15:49pm hrs
Why the most superficial anchor in English TV should have been chosen for Rahul Gandhis maiden interview is really for his media managers to explain. But every time Rahul attempted to drag the programme from banality to depth, the anchor stubbornly brought it back to the trivial and the episodic. This particular anchor has done more than all the other channels combined to dumb down the political discourse among the twittering classes. When I ask people why they watch him, the standard answer I get is, Not for enlightenment, just for entertainment. And that is really what the nation needs to know!

So, it is hardly surprising that the interviewer bristled when Rahul gently suggested that he was being superficial. Of course, he was. It is not in this anchors nature to plumb the profound. I hope Rahul finds himself a more reflective anchor when he goes beyond the tiny English-speaking audience of that channel to the broad masses in Hindi and other Indian languages. Rahul valiantly tried to get the conversation going on what interests him above all the democratisation of governance, a wider and deeper participatory process than we have thus far secured. Sixty-four years after the promulgation of our Constitution, this remains the most fundamental issue of our democracy: whether the people should be empowered once in five years or on a daily basis. The deeper and more effective participation of individuals and communities in their own governance summed up as inclusive governance for inclusive growth is the most pressing issue of our time. As Rahul pointed out (when he was permitted by his interviewer to do so for a moment), 10 years of the UPA have given us the highest rate of growth ever achieved. And attempts to make it inclusive have also succeeded in terms of money made available for social sectors like education and health, and anti-poverty programmes like the MGNREGA, food security guarantees and Aadhaar. But if the 12th Plan document confesses to failure to secure inclusive growth, that is because finances are a necessary, not sufficient, condition of inclusion. So long as the poor and the destitute are dependent on an indifferent and uncaring bureaucracy for the last-mile delivery of public goods and services, inclusion will remain a mirage.

The answer lies in panchayat raj, as Mahatma Gandhi, long years ago, had envisaged, and as Rahul struggled in his interview, in the face of imbecility, to explain. Had the anchor given Rahul half a chance to expand on his basic theme, the nation would have learned what its potential leader wants for the real people of the nation (not just its couch potatoes).

We have the framework. And we have an injunction.

The framework is to be found in Parts IX (The Panchayats) and IXA (The Municipalities) of the Constitution, brought into our governance framework through the longest and most detailed amendments introduced by Rahuls father a quarter of a century ago, but pathetically under-utilised after Rajiv was assassinated. As the lusting classes turned to faster growth as the road to the faster fulfilment of their avarice, India prospered, but most Indians have remained virtually where they were over 70 per cent of the population were poor and vulnerable, as the Arjun Sengupta committee revealed nearly a decade ago. The Planning Commission has dismissed that finding. But in what was perhaps his most revolutionary remark at the Congress plenary (unnoticed, of course, by the trivial media), Rahul revived that revelation, pointing out that while growth may have taken a hundred million or more out of utter destitution, it still left nearly three-quarters of our population vulnerable to precipitately falling below the poverty line in the event of the least mishap accident, death, crop failure or unemployment.

Rahul recognises, as none since his father has, that the only effective safety net for the destitute, the poor and the vulnerable is the democratisation of governance so that they are effectively empowered to take charge of their lives and use their own brains and brawn, in conjunction with money provided by government, to build their own future instead of being haplessly dependent on the bureaucracy-NGO nexus that has so obviously failed to deliver. Give them the tools and they will finish the job.

To do this, we have numerous studies, conscientiously prepared over the 10 years of UPA 1 and 2 but equally conscientiously left to moulder in inconspicuous cupboards by our bureaucracy, which is deadly opposed to administrative power moving out of their hands and into the hands of elected representatives of the people in the neighbourhoods where the aam aadmi live and eke out an existence. These self-same bureaucrats also play on the naivete of many ministers to frighten them off what the same ministers have voted for in their respective state assemblies and Parliament.

It will take determined political leadership right at the very top, as Jawaharlal Nehru demonstrated in giving effect to the path-breaking 1957 Balvantray Mehta report on panchayat raj. It will also take the dogged persistence that Rahuls father displayed to push for the historic 73rd and 74th amendments, which gave constitutional safeguards, sanction and sanctity to Constitution-based panchayat raj. Rahul is certain, when his time comes, to give top-most priority to the implementation of all we have learned about constitutional panchayat raj in 20 years of practice, summed up in a five-volume, 1500-page report submitted last year by an expert committee that I had the honour to chair. The roadmap for dramatic devolution is ready. It needs a dedicated prime minister to steer the recommendations to realisation. This is the only way to radically alter the prospects for translating accelerated growth into inclusive development.

Rahul is the man to do this. Not Narendra Modi. For Modi was just about the only chief minister in all of India to repeatedly refuse his panchayat minister Bhupinder Chudasamas request to invite me, as Union minister of panchayati raj, to visit his state to evaluate panchayat raj in Gujarat. Modi had just too much to hide.

In sharp contrast, Rahul wants to take us to Mahatma Gandhis dream for independent India. Asked in 1931 what his dream was for azad Bharat, Gandhi replied, I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in the making of which they have an effective voice. That is the injunction that Rahul has himself laid upon his young shoulders. It is of far, far greater significance for the future of our nation than the rubbish about Hindu Raj that lies at the foundation of what passes for the thought processes of the Sangh Parivar and its latest prophet.

The writer is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha

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