The Rise of the Panchayati Raj Institutions as the Third Tier in Indian Federalism: Where the Shoe Pinches

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
The Rise of the
Panchayati Raj
Institutions as the
Third Tier in Indian
Federalism: Where
the Shoe Pinches
Prabhat Kumar Datta1,2 and
Inderjeet Singh Sodhi3
The idea of forming a two-tier federal structure in India gathered considerable
momentum after the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League came
together through a Pact in 1916. But the concept of the third tier which was
mooted in the Constituent Assembly through the incorporation of panchayats in
the Directive Principles of State Policy after detailed deliberation began receiving
attention after the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution in 1992 which coin-
cided with the paradigmatic shift in the policy of the Indian State. This Act signi-
fied in clear terms the intention of the State to strengthen the process of third
tier federalism in India. This article seeks to critically examine the process of
evolution of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as a new tier in the Indian federal
system, excluding the Fifth and Sixth Scheduled Areas. An attempt has also been
made to analyse despite constitutionalisation of PRIs where the shoe still pinches
and wherein lies the ray of hope.
The federal system, third tier, 73rd Constitutional Amendment, Gram Sabha,
decentralised planning
Indian Journal of Public
67(1) 9–26, 2021
© 2021 IIPA
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00195561211005569
1 Xavier law School, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, India.
2 Former Centenary Chair of Public Administration, Department of Political Science, University of
Calcutta, Kolkata, India.
3 Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, Department of Local Governance,
Sriperumbudur, India.
Corresponding author:
Prabhat Kumar Datta, St. Xavier’s University, Xavier Law School, Kolkata, West Bengal 700160, India.
10 Indian Journal of Public Administration 67(1)
The central focus in the history of the nationalist movement in India in the late
19th and early 20th centuries was on national unity, or on the promotion of con-
ception of what is called a ‘composite federalist culture’. The idea of forming a
federal form of government in India became an issue of debate and discussion
during the freedom movement in the early years of the 20th century. The matter
gathered considerable momentum when the Lucknow Pact was signed by the
Indian National Congress (INC) and the Muslim League (ML) in 1916. Two con-
tradictory pulls started becoming active since then. On the one hand, there was the
INC fighting for high dose of centralisation and on the other hand, the ML working
for best possible decentralisation (Datta, 1991). In this ‘unitary versus federal’
controversy, the issue of demarcation of powers figured prominently and the
Congress and the League leaders differed sharply on the question of which tier of
the government would be exercising the residual powers. All Parties Conference
headed by Motilal Nehru, the Round Table Conferences and all the subsequent
negotiations culminating in the British Cabinet Missions came to grips with
the question of demarcation of powers between the Union and the states. The
Constituent Assembly which was convened in 1946 debated the issue for quite
some time out of which emerged the federal constitution. In Sabyasachi
Bhattacharya’s words, it was definitely ‘a defining moment in the history of the
new republic of India’ (Bhattacharya, 2018). It was included in the 1946 formula,
which was a sort of a compromise between the INC and the ML, that the Centre
should have powers only over foreign affairs, defence and communications
(Kurien & Varughese, 1981).
The Congress Perception of Federalism
This formula was eventually rejected by the ML which opted for a sovereign state.
It was expected that Muslim-majority provinces could achieve greater gains out
of it. With the partition of the country in 1947, the prime motive of the Congress
for the stress on provincial autonomy seemed to have lost its intensity. Immediately
after partition, Nehru observed that the need of the hour was a strong Centre with
a federal structure. According to Jain (1977),
It would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central author-
ity which would be incapable of ensuring peace, co-ordinating vital matters of common
concern and speaking effectively for the whole country in the international sphere. At
the same time we are quite clear in our minds that there are many matters in which sole
authority must rest with unit, and that to frame our Constitution on the basis of a unitary
state would be a retrograde step, both politically and administratively.
This unusual situation (where the ML did not find any reason to put pressure on
the framers of the Constitution to opt for the structure already arrived at), pro-
vided necessary objective for the Congress to move away from its earlier position.
As a result, ‘the superficial federal structure remained’, as Namboodiripad com-
ments, but

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