Home > 2016 > Gandhi and Governance: Relooking Development at Grassroot Level

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 41 New Delhi October 1, 2016

Gandhi and Governance: Relooking Development at Grassroot Level

Monday 3 October 2016

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

The Gandhian idea of governance and development at the community level is a people-centred approach that combines a number of activities to ensure people (rural people) access to relevant information so that they shall collaborate and participate in development. Through information and knowledge, the rural voices may express their expectations and can share their knowledge. Here community governance is a powerful driver, especially for the marginalised people, to change their lives for better. The Gandhian idea of government and governance is about to enhance rural communication services at the grassroot level so that it can empower the local people to plan and manage the development processes.

Any government—whether of Nehru, Gandhi (Indira and Rajiv) or Modi—in its policy docu-ments/election manifestos highlights what rural people need in order to move up the socio-economic ladder. Prime Ministers in India never fail to mention ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Village’ in their promises. They feel happy to speak about invest-ments and technologies that would improve rural livelihood. But in practice, the efforts are not really sufficient to sustain the desired change at the grassroot level. The failure is because of two primary reasons—lack of participation and ineffective communication. This commentary appreciates the Gandhian understanding of governance and is evolved with an analysis that how relooking this concept of governance could help the formal and informal agencies of development and governance to build a platform for dialogue and common understating for rural communities who are the real decision-makers in good governance.

Governance and Development

In the last two decades, a number of studies have been conducted to understand the gap between the rural people and the political institutions, especially the government, which affect their lives. The World Bank’s study—‘Voices of the Poor’—finds that many poor people around the world, notably those living in rural areas, perceive political and governance institutions like the state to be distant, unaccoun-table and corrupt. (Narayan et.al. 2000)

Another study conducted by the Common-wealth Foundation in forty countries found that there is a growing disillusionment of people with their governments, based on their concerns with a lack of responsiveness to the needs of the poor people, and the disconnection from the lives of ordinary rural people. (Commonwealth Foundation, 1999) It does not mean that people, especially the rural people, have no interest in politics and governance. But they are frustrated in the political process and have started realising that there is a huge gap between them and the state institutions of governance. Their involve-ment in the political life of the state and nation is getting limited day-by-day and political engagement is being restricted to the domain of political parties and governance institutions. The concern is how to allow the rural people to voice their issues through inclusion, consul-tation and mobilisation so that it can inform and influence the governance process. (Cornwall, 2002)

Here, the Gandhian understanding of gover-nance and leadership is imperative as it guides everyone in the government and governance to build and strengthen the accountability and responsiveness of the governance institutions to offer good governance—which every elected government in India is promising and has promised for the last seventy years.

‘Gandhi’; ‘Village’ and ‘Good Governance’ are treasure words which every Indian politician had quite smartly learned to cash in on by pointing to Gandhi and his vision for rural India. Prime Ministerial speeches on Indepen-dence Day had hardly missed out these punch words. Gandhi and Village are two words of the holy political manuscript which one needs to keep chanting for survival in Indian politics. One can afford to miss them in practice but not in speeches. They constitute a political compulsion. They are justification for being a leader in Indian politics. But ground realities speak a different story.

Although the 73rd Constitutional Amendment has made the local government institutions, especially the Panchayati Raj Institutions, of crucial importance and assigns them a coordi-native role to link public services with local knowledge and participatory environment, unfortunately, due to poor co-ordination and communication, the meetings of Gram Sabhas were not properly attended by the most of the villagers. The MGNREGA is stricken with the worm of favouritism and corruption. Decentrali-sation of power has become a myth. Partici-pation is far from achieved. The Panchayati Raj System has failed to empower the village community in the true sense. Panchayat representatives have been reduced to the part of the policy-implementing mechanism. They were not able to prove themselves as people’s representatives in the real sense; rather, they started acting as government agents.

We have failed Gandhi on the ground but not in speeches. Mahatma Gandhi rejected the idea of parliamentary democracy. (Pantham, 1983) Instead, he supported the idea of local councils so that the state withers away. Gandhi’s local republics had virtues of voluntaries. (Pasricha, 2010) The political economy of Gandhi was for empowering the local communes (Panchayats).

Gandhi’s localism can be equated with that of Marx’s communism in respect of dealing with state power. (Mashruwala, 1951) Pacific anar-chism (fight against the state power) links the two systems into one. The Marxo-Gandhian idea of social change was experimented in China as the Maoist Civil war of the Marxian variety and as the JP movement of the Gandhian variety in India. The JP movement created numerous voluntary organisations in India to weaken the political authority of the centralised state. The Panchayats also got a new life after this movement. The concept of Bhoodani Panchayats of JP was an exemplary outcome of this movement. It was thought at that time that the Panchayati Raj System in India will create an egalitarian base and it will further operate as a strong development agency of the poor. (Gupta and Gupta, 2010)

Any government, whether of the NDA, UPA or any other alliance in future, if it really wants to put the Gandhian idea of governance and leadership in practice, has to rethink the role of elected representatives, especially in local bodies, and the role they can play in local democracy. They have to recognise diverse regional socio-political contexts of engagement between communities, institutions of governance and government, so that a participatory model of governance can be built upon the diversity of local understandings of leadership.

Representation, Leadership and Participation: The Gandhian Philosophy


Gandhi often pointed out “The real India lies in the 7,50,000 villages. If Indian civilisation is to make its full contribution to the building up of a stable world order, it is this vast mass of humanity that has...to be made to live again.”(Gandhi, 1999) At the core for this transformation to happen he emphasised on adequate representation, dynamic leadership and active participation at the grassroot level. He philosophised that the villages should undertake the responsibility of governing themselves. People in the villages should actively participate in the development activities regarding agriculture, public health, education, irrigation and animal husbandry. Not only should the rural people participate in the implementation of programmes, they should have the authority to take decisions regarding their requirements and necessities.

Beyond the elected representatives of the panchayati raj institutions, he saw a great potential of local leadership in ‘Gramsevaks’. In his opinion, to make the village self-sufficient, such a skilled workforce who are ready to work in the rural areas, is required. The Gramsevaks, as he opined, would train the villagers in many fields like health, education and agriculture, irrigation and animal husbandry etc. But before doing so, they have to win the confidence of the villagers, by developing an intimacy and emotional attachment with them. They have to show them the way of helping themselves and procure for them such help and materials as they require. As a facilitator, the Gramsevaks have to work hard to improve the capacity of village communities to take care of their own resources.

In Gandhi’s opinion, villages are the sole identity of India. ‘If village perishes, India would perish too. It will no more be India. Her mission in the world will be lost.’ (Singh, 2009: 5)Thereby he directed the state as”the state shall take steps to organise village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” To realise this Gandhian vision for rural gover-nance, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act was enacted in 1992. Since this provision was enacted, the elected representatives (ERs) of the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) are playing a role of channel between governments and the villagers—the target-beneficiaries of a number of the governments’ development schemes. The success of these schemes is highly dependent on how efficiently this channel works. Actually there seems to be a strong correlation between the rate of success of any government scheme (specially meant for the rural people and to be implemented through the PRIs) and the level of magnitude of participation of these ERs in implementing them. Now the important question at this juncture that arises is: how much interest are these ERs showing in this whole process of grassroot governance?

The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act has brought in around 3.2 million people all over the country in the leadership role as elected representatives of the PRIs. Among them, around 1.2 million are women. (RPI Report, 2011) This indicates that as the largest democracy in the world, presently we have a big opportunity to encash and realise the goal of democratic decentralisation and Poorna Swaraj as dreamt by Mahatma Gandhi. The role of ERs of the PRIs in strengthening the roots of democracy and for pulling 70 per cent of the country’s population out of the quagmire of poverty, illiteracy, inequality and backwardness cannot be over-stated. Empowering these 3.1 million people would mean facilitating the way for empower-ment of the 68 million population residing in rural India.

These ERs can prove to be the greatest human resource available to bring revolutionary changes at the grassroots level. They can become potential advocates of grassroot voices and sound intermediaries between governments and the village people. If an ER is adequately literate, having the spirit for public service and is capable of building a strong communication network upwardly with MPs, MLAs, government officials and academicians and downwardly with the people he/she represents, only then he/she can serve the village community better.

But illiteracy, casteism, gender biasness and economic backwardness are the obstacles which inhibit ERs to a play significant role in the development process. In order to overcome these challenges and to empower the PRIs to function as local self-governments in letter and spirit of Article 243 (G), the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) has designed a National Capacity Building Framework (NCBF) which outlines a comprehensive approach toward building the capabilities of Panchayats. These capacity-building initiatives are focused on the training programme; however, the ERs need assistance on a range of other practical and day-to-day issues, including Gram Sabha mobilisation, interaction with officials on finalisation of the BPL (Below Poverty Line) list, campaigns on health issues, child school enrolment, voter awareness, monitoring of drought relief work, mid-day-meal programme and the functioning of Anganwadis.

Beyond Ballot Box: Institutions of Rural Governance

In a number of his interactions with people, Gandhi criticised the liberal-democratic reifi-cation, objectification, and technocratisation of mainstream political institutions. (Pantham, 1983) Rather than believing in a formal democratic political system, he preferred alter-native institutions of governance. Institu-tions of governance at the grassroot level like self-help groups, volunteer groups, youth clubs, civil societies, and non-government organi-sations can lead to a better civic participation than formal political institutions like state and political organisations. These informal institu-tions can effectively coordinate and guide the development programmes and partners at the village level by mobilising people to participate actively in development process and planning. (Bucek and Smith, 2000) These governance institutions can encourage people to participate in taking decisions that are locally appropriate at the village level and thus can easily serve the needs of the local community.

Since the leadership of these institutions is beyond the ballot box, they can be more proactive and can reach out to the communities to ensure the participation of the largest possible number. What is required here is to develop some mechanisms and channels in place that can enable the participation in the local decision-making process of the rural people. (Barber, 1984) The channels can be community work councils, local community meetings at the village level or any other informal group or gathering of common rural people. Through these channels, people can participate in decision-making regarding issues related to socio-economic affairs; justice and settlements of social and legal disputes; develop-ment programmes and good governance. These informal channels can help the common people to move from being ‘users or choosers’ of public service policies made by formal political and governance institutions, to ‘makers and shapers’ of the policies themselves. (Cornwall and Gaventa, 2000)

This Gandhian approach to governance is imperative as it links people and States in new ways to rebuild the relationship between the people and government. Further, the chances of re-election of a PRI are bleaker and keeping his/her socio-economic background in mind, his/her five-year tenure slips away only in understanding the basics of the panchayat system and its functioning. One can be more productive if he/she gets another chance. This concern has been raised several times by numerous panchayat represen-tatives to the researchers doing their researches on grassroot governance. This is the other reason why the institutions of rural governance beyond the ballet box become essential. They are beyond the election and re-election process. Their past experience will always enrich their future action.

What makes the Gandhian idea of village and governance unique and different from other approaches in governance is that it is participatory and holistic. It talks about an integrated approach built on the understanding that people at the grassroot level participate only through dialogue, knowledge exchange and mutual learning from each other. Governance, in the Gandhian view, is not a top-down approach of transferring information and knowledge; rather it is a cross-cutting approach practised in an integrated manner through collective decision-making and collaboration for the welfare of everyone irrespective of caste, religion, class, and ethnicity. If development and governance are about change, this change cannot occur without collective community efforts for diagnosis, discussion and problem-solving process.

The Gandhian understanding of governance and development at the village level is based on the understanding and awareness of the common rural people of their own social, economic and political conditions so that they can deal with their common issues and can consciously take the initiative to seek and find solutions. In this process, the formal political and governance systems are required as facilitators and only with this understanding would we be in a position to say that people are the fifth pillar of democracy.


Barber, B. (1984), Strong Democracy: Participatory Policies for a New Age, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

Bucek, J. and Smith, B. (2000), “New Approaches to Local Democracy: Direct Democracy, Participation and the ‘Third Sector’”, Government and Policy, 18: 3-16.

Commonwealth Foundation (1999), Citizens and Governance: Civil Society in the New Millennium, London: The Commonwealth Foundation Publication.

Cornwall, A. (2002), ‘Making Spaces, Changing Places: Situating Participation in Development’, IDS Working Paper 170.

Cornwall, A. and Gaventa, J. (2000), ‘From Users and Choosers to Makers and Shapers: Repositioning Participation in Social Policy’, IDS Bulletin, 31 (4): 50-62.

Gandhi, M. (1999), The Collected Works of Mahatama Gandhi, New Delhi: Publication Division, Government of India.

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Narayan, D., Chambers, R., Shah, M.K. and Petesch, P. (2000), Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for Change, Washington DC: World Bank.

Pantham, T. (1983), ‘Thinking with Mahatama Gandhi: Beyond Liberal Democracy’, Political Theory, 11 (2): 165-188.

Pasricha, A. (2010), ‘Rediscovering Gandhi: Consensual Democracy Gandhi on State, Power and Politics’, New Delhi: Concept Publication.

Singh, K. (2009), Rural Development: Principles, Policies and Management, New Delhi: Sage.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Sandeep Sharma is presently doing his Ph.D from the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh. Before shifting to academics, he worked with Dainik Bhaskar, the Hindi daily, as a sub-editor.