Oct 04, 2023
Oct 04, 2023
by M. N. Buch
A nascent Digvijay eight years ago appeared to be a person who was asked to chart a turbulent sea, with almost no navigation aids and plenty of obstructions and tempests, both within the Congress Party and in the opposition. He started off as a surrogate of Arjun Singh and in the earlier years one could sense his diffidence in relation to his powerful political guru. There was a strident opposition in the form of BJP which was annoyed with the Congress Party for its unceremonious ouster from power after the Ayodhya affair. At that time Digvijay was a child who was learning how to walk. One watched with admiration the adroitness with which he handled both his party and his opposition rivals, winning over, neutralizing, marginalizing or downgrading practically every one of them. Some were appeased, other purchased, still others coerced and those who could not be so suppressed were ignored or marginalized.
Simultaneously Digvijay started on the twin tracks of populism on the one hand and administrative change on the other which kept the opposition on the hop. Populism consisted of free electricity to farmers and slum dwellers, regularization of encroachments on urban land, regularization of forest encroachments, etc., Whilst impoverishing the state and its agencies these measures certainly brought Digvijay a degree of immediate popularity amongst the beneficiaries. Digvijay was also the first Chief Minister in India to cash in on the opportunities offered by the Seventy Third Constitution Amendment Act. He used this as a means of projecting himself as a man in a hurry to bring about a total social and administrative restructuring of the state. He constituted a three tier Panchayat system and held elections to it. On paper, at least, he transferred many powers to the Panchayats and referred to them as the future face of government in the state. However, great care was taken to ensure that the transfer of power to the Panchayats was by way of delegation and not genuine devolution. Despite this, when the Sarpanchs of the Zila Panchayats began to show their teeth, thus increasingly marginalizing the members of the legislature and the ministers, Digvijay averted a revolt by constituting what he called the District Government. This was in fact the District Planning Committee mandated by the Seventy Third Constitution Amendment, the spirit of which amendment is that the said committee be representative of the people and the elected officials in the district. Instead Digvijay made a minister in-charge of each District Planning Committee, with the Collector as the Member Secretary, whose writ became more powerful that that of the elected Zila Panchayat.
Theoretically this is a democratic body, but since its Chairman is not accountable locally and he also happens to be a minister in the state government, in effect the District Planning Committee/District Government became more powerful than the Zila Panchayat. This is a classic case of what the left hand giveth the right hand taketh away. Certainly the substitution of ministers as chairmen of the District Planning Committees in place of the person who should rightfully have been there, the Sarpanch of the Zila Panchayat, partially negated the concept of decentralization of powers. Notwithstanding strenuous denials by government the present form of the so called District Government does reduce the importance of the Zila Panchayat. Incidentally in the urban field, where the Seventy Fourth Constitution Amendment also mandates decentralized local government, the municipalities have much less powers than the Panchayats and the level of interference is much higher.
Digvijay has certainly been successful in handling politics. The creation of Chhattisgarh has removed from the scene his major rivals, the Shukla brothers and Ajit Jogi. Mr Arjun Singh's health probably does not permit him to play as active a part in state politics as before. Kamal Nath has his own problems and in any case the MPEB is the cockpit in which he and Digvijay fight their political battles. Madhavrao Scindia is no more. Within the Congress no one walks as tall as Digvijay, who is thus able to run the most centralized government in the history of the state, where nothing moves without his clearance, whilst presenting to the world the face of a totally decentralized government. This calls for rare manipulative skills. So far as the BJP is concerned, Digvijay has charmed most of its leaders or won them over through blandishments, with the result that it is no longer a serious contender for power. That leaves Digvijay the monarch of all he surveys.
Homo politicus Digvijay has done three other things. The first is to so manipulate the three All India Services that where once they formed a homogenous team, today they are at each others throats. In most districts the Collector, SP and DFO are no longer on talking terms. This certainly suits the politicians. Secondly, he has been able to convince the media about the sincerity and the effectiveness of all his administrative and political measures and has also been able to convince a number of NGOs that what he is doing is right. In other words, he has been able to persuade them to view him uncritically despite the reality belying what is projected. Thirdly, having created the edifice of Panchayati Raj he has now partially dismantled it by completely marginalizing the elected Sarpanchs and members of the Panchayats and substituting them by seven committees per Gram Sabha, consisting of twelve members each who are selected by a process which is certainly not formally democratic. In fact this is a restoration of a feudal system because the one who is most influential in the village and commands the largest number of strong armed men now virtually rules the Gram Sabha. By having eighty four plus members of the committees per village this government is able to spread thin but quite evenly a layer of corruption right down to the level of the village. At least for the next general elections a strong force of vested interests now exists, which would probably yield rich electoral dividends. These would be short term, extremely harmful to the overall interests of the state, at the cost of genuine development and brought about by the debasement of established institutions. However, if the objective is not governance, but merely holding on to power, this would be manipulative politics at its worse. But that is at the core of the game of politics as now played in India. What greater certificate of success can one give to homo politicus ?
More by : M. N. Buch