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'Modi is against the women of India'

By Rashme Sehgal
July 26, 2016 11:01 IST
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'Similarly, he is against Dalits, forgetting that the only way to get rid of poverty is to empower poor people.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi releases the New Mandate of Ministry of Panchayati Raj at the Panchayati Raj Sammelan in Jamshedpur, April 24. Photograph: pmindia.gov.in

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar is upset at media reports that the Narendra Modi government plans to close down the panchayati raj ministry and turned into a department under the ministry of rural development.

Aiyar, who once headed the ministry and helped formulate and implement the massive programme of decentralisation at the grassroots level, explains to Rashme Sehgal how this will be a further setback for democracy.

The ministry of panchayati raj has been devalued by the central government amidst strong rumours that it might be forced to shut shop completely and become a part of the ministry of rural development.

First and foremost, the present government sees the ministry of panchayati raj as being a Congress scheme and therefore want to devalue it for petty political reasons.

By doing so, they want to undermine the Centre's role in a Constitutional amendment. If they were to close down or devalue the ministry, it would confirm one's worst fears about this government's hypocritical approach to grassroots democracy in order to ensure grassroots development.

This 73rd Amendment, passed virtually unanimously by both Houses in December 1992, was a significant step taken to ensure democracy blooms at the grassroots level. But a government focused on centralisation (of powers) will find it difficult to understand decentralisation.

The Gujarat government under Modi took the very reactionary step of financially rewarding any panchayat that did not hold elections.

According to Modi's development model, the panchayats are to be brushed aside in order to grab the land and give it to the Adanis.

Rajasthan and now Haryana have followed suit by placing regressive restrictions on less educated and poorer candidates, particularly Dalit women from even contesting panchayat elections.

I must point out to you that Modi was the only chief minister to refuse me entry into Gujarat when as the first-ever Union minister during the first UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government. I was trying to chalk out state-specific action plans to be implemented for every state.

Modi wanted to develop a model where panchayats could be brushed aside and land be handed over to corporates.

Let me emphasise that by doing so, he is also reversing the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 which makes panchayats central to the entire process of acquisition.

It is also anti-people because he has failed to appoint a separate minister for the panchayati raj in 2014.

It is obvious he fails to understand that panchayati raj cannot be limited to just rural development schemes. He also fails to understand what the 73rd Amendment sought to do was a radical reorganisation of last-mile delivery of public goods and services to the panchayats.

Don't you think you are being excessively harsh in your assessment of the prime minister?

The man is personally a hypocrite. He wants to personalise his government. He wants to make everyone feel that he is all that matters. He believes all credit must go to him and if there is a debit, it should go to the others. He does not want equal partners.

He is against the women of India. Downgrading this ministry is a very retrogressive step because panchayati raj is aimed at empowering women.

Similarly, he is against Dalits, forgetting that the only way to get rid of poverty is to empower poor people so they can run their own affairs. Modi wants to project himself and therefore does not allow people to project themselves.

The number of people participating in panchayati raj is unprecedented. As against around 5,000 elected MPs and MLAs, there are about 28 lakh (2 million) rural and about 4 lakh (400,000) urban representatives, with about 14 lakh (1.4 million) rural and urban women who have been elected.

We have more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together. Representation has also been given to SCs, STs and OBCs.

This has been a tremendous achievement and it explains why this programme has been the engine for political and social revolution.

Modi has no sympathy for these people. He is a budding fascist dictator, not a deeply democratic person like Rajiv Gandhi who was committing to devolving power because he genuinely believed that the system of power brokers must be done away with to give way to inclusive growth.

There have been allegations of non-performance and misuse of funds by elected members of panchayats.

Who ran the most expensive election campaign in 2014? It was funded by large capitalist houses who Modi has gone on to assist. He had declared that he would abolish corruption.

Panchayats have been made responsible to gram sabhas in order to reduce despotism and in end corruption.

This de-democratisation of local self-government would be aggravated if a Cabinet minister for panchayati raj was not available to advocate this cause with chief ministers and others in the states.

We had gone on to prepare a five volume, 1,500 page report titled the 'Expert Committee on Leveraging Panchayats for Efficient Delivery of Public Goods and Services,' which was released in 2013. I doubt whether Modi is aware that this report exists.

Were you the only full-fledged minister to head this ministry?

It's bad enough that in the UPA government, the ministry of panchayati raj got devalued. I was the only independent minister.

Montek (Singh Ahluwalia) and P Chidambaram were not in favour of it remaining under an independent minister and I did not enjoy the full cooperation of then prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi remained completely supportive of our initiatives. To place this huge engine of social change to a minister of state is a disgrace.

To achieve its objectives, it needs to become an independent ministry preferably under an influential minister.

But the fact of the matter is that this remains a grossly undervalued ministry.

It has to remain a crucial element of governance across the board. Establishing it meant establishing a third tier of governance.

It meant devaluation of power on a large scale and called for a systemic overhaul of district and sub-district administration.

How is the Congress poised to tackle all the challenges that you have alluded to in your interview?

Nothing in politics is permanent. If we succeed in re-organising our party and establish a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), then the Modi era will come to an end in 2019 and I am confident this will come to pass.

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