As with most hazy notions about India’s glorious past, most Indians assume that we invented the concept of federalism and decentralisation: images of a panchayat negotiating the affairs of the village are part of our collective consciousness.

Despite our reasonably old but discontinuous history of town republics, this assumption is misplaced: there is little evidence of organised political institutions in India until the mid-eighteenth century. Sunil Khilani says, “No concept of a state emerged: kings represented only themselves, never enduring states.… unlike the history of Europe, that of pre-colonial India shows no upward curve in the responsibilities and capacities of the state. The British gradually but decisively defined power in political terms and located it in a sovereign, central state.”

From the introduction of the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909, the arc of India’s political evolution raced over the next forty years, through the 1919 Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, which changed this structure to grant Indians a form of responsible government, until finally the Government of India Act of 1935, which gave India a quasi-federal structure of government; with Independence, the Constitution adopted much of the framework of federal management laid out in the 1935 Act.

In political evolution terms, this is a 100-metre sprint, like going from the ape-man to homo sapiens in a decade. Clearly, while the political elites saw wisdom in this scaffolding, it is a frame which the Indian citizen is still fleshing out. Unfortunately, so far, in the alphabet of democracy, we have all been going from “E” to “F”: elect and forget. We need to stay on the letter “E”: elect and engage. These twin concepts of a federal arrangement – a structure for a multi-tiered form of government with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and active citizenship are like the two strands of the DNA of good public governance.

Along with the explosion of democracies over the past century has been the difficult task of creating robust institutional arrangements for the management of public affairs. While there is debate about the origins of federalism and their benefits, it is the dominant democratic structure in the world today, with experimentation in hundreds of federal life forms. One almost ubiquitous ingredient: a 3-tier structure of national, regional and local governments. There are lessons to be learnt from successful countries. In an assessment of the Swiss model, and its applicability for developing countries, Gerald Hosp says, “it seems that the Swiss federal system is based on very specific institutional preconditions (and) direct democratic elements.”

Unfortunately, the economic education of the Indian citizen that is happening with globalisation – significantly felt in the urban areas - is not being balanced by political education.
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While we will examine the role of citizens later, intergovernmental institutions are important for the proper functioning of a federal system. Professor Akhtar Majeed noted, “In the debates on federalism, special attention needs to be given to the importance of intergovernmental relations between different tiers of government. The intergovernmental agencies have not acquired the functional relevance visualized in the Constitution.”

He refers to the continuous failure to establish appropriate intergovernmental institutions, from 1967 when the Inter-State Council was first recommended, to the 1971 recommendations of the Rajamannar Commission, to the subsequent Sarkaria Commission recommendations which stated that “there is ‘blood pressure at the Centre and anemia at the periphery’.”

There was also a deeper flaw: there was really no third tier of the federal structure, at the local level. With the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1992, we completed the federal puzzle in our country. As George Mathews says, “The Panchayats–Districts and below are now treated as third stratum of governance (with) more than 500 District Governments within India besides 250,000 Village Governments.”

Unfortunately, such leadership is sorely lacking in urban decentralisation. Caught in the penumbra of the spotlight on their rural brethren, the urban citizens are finding themselves in a governance vacuum. Consider the following statistics for Karnataka:

Measured one way, the distance between citizens and their elected representatives is almost ten times greater in urban areas than rural Karnataka; in Bangalore, 100 times greater, explaining the relative anonymity of local governments in towns and cities. In addition to this, the Gram Sabha in the rural areas has got legitimacy, if not actual on-the-ground usage, with the idea that every registered voter should participate in decision-making. In contrast, the urban areas have a concept of the Wards Committee, hampered by the combination of a debatable nomination process, limited citizen representation and an ambiguous mandate.

This failure to have a coherent rural-urban approach to issues of federalism is a big lacuna in Indian federalism. Indeed it is surprising that – despite the general rigour that has characterized India’s approach to democratic institutionalization – there has been such an intellectual vacuum with respect to urbanization.

There is another side to this coin, without which federalism is like a batsman without a partner at the crease: this is citizenship. As the Swiss example demonstrates, federalism cannot work without direct democracy, or in a diluted form, participatory processes for decision-making.

Here, a dangerous trend is emerging in India: the urban elite are skipping around the world, taking the best of each country, essentially as free-riders, without engaging in building the fabric of democracy. This is one of the less understood side effects of globalisation: the phenomenon of the free-rider globalists, who are not citizens anywhere. Being honest taxpayers is insufficient: paying for the grease does not come with the right to opt out of the messy work of maintaining the democratic engines. These free-rider globalists live in “synthetic communities” bound together by the internet, which has minimized the concept of the local citizen while possibly increasing the concept of the global citizen. People have started caring about the Siberian whale and the Brazilian rainforest, while ignoring the local water supply or the neighbourhood slum.

Unfortunately, the economic education of the Indian citizen that is happening with globalisation – significantly felt in the urban areas - is not being balanced by political education. Here, the blame lies with the state which is creating a society of politically malnourished citizens, by not providing mechanisms for engagement.

Indeed, this is a trait that needs to be especially cultivated in young democracies, especially those that emerge from a feudal and culturally complex past like India. In new democracies, federalism and participatory processes at the local level serve a much larger purpose: they act as the political crucible to educate the citizen, they are the political kindergartens.

After fifty years, we are halfway across the river of establishing sound political arrangements for good governance. This is not the time for timidity: standing still will not help us get across. We need to address the twin challenges of establishing the right institutional structures for federalism to work, and creating the space for institutionalizing citizen participation in urban local government. Done correctly, we could design the right DNA that can guarantee the future political health of urban India. And with it, the beginning of an informed urban citizenry who will start engaging in matters of state at all levels of our federal system. Democracy cannot trickle down to the citizen, it has to ripple out from her.