As early as 1887, Lord Acton had warned that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This is a historically tested hypothesis and is usually referred to while explaining the rise and consolidation of undemocratic and authoritarian politico-ideological authorities. What is unique about the assumption is that it has also led to alternative conceptualizations of power and authority by drawing on powerful endeavours challenging concentration of power and centralization of authority. The idea is couched in a popular theoretical model of democratic decentralization that also encourages participatory governance involving the stakeholders. Implicit in this theoretical assumption is the idea that democracy, being complementary to decentralization, is a powerful instrument for effective governance since it allows the stakeholders to guide governance in accordance with their ideological priorities, with the panoptical state hardly having a role to play. Conceptually speaking, this speaks of a design of governance in which stakeholders remain integral to the entire administrative process. The outcome is two-fold: on the one hand, it creates an environment in which governance never becomes a distant object, but is part and parcel of the being of stakeholders. Given their involvement in administrative decision making, it also sets in motion, on the other hand, processes of accountability which cannot be ascertained so easily in the Weberian hierarchical form of bureaucracy, because of its lack of appreciation for external accountability. As the following discussion will show, democratic decentralization is definitely a powerful device to ensure ethics in governance; not only is this an arrangement to challenge the bureaucratic grip over governance, it is also an effective and easily conceivable ideological design that draws on popular aspirations for governance as per their socio-ideological and economic priorities. Based on global experiences, it is also believed that democratic decentralization is not merely a refreshing conceptual category, but a doable mechanism to address the issues of lack of ethics in governance particularly in most of the developing countries. What is most striking is the fact that, despite being theoretically well structured and conceptually rich, democratic decentralization did not seem to have received adequate academic attention, perhaps for historical reasons. Persuaded by the effective role of panoptical bureaucracy, most of the leaders of the decolonized world did not seem to bother to explore whether it
was adequately equipped to address their context-specific problems. Soon it was evident to the policy makers that typical bureaucratic governance was not at all appropriate for what had been conceptualized as their ideological mission. Countries that had won independence after prolonged colonial rule were almost crippled due to the lack of ethics in governance and consequently the rising importance of corruption in public life. So efforts were made to explore alternatives to arrest the rapid deterioration of ethics, morality and fair play in the public arena: one of the endeavours was to institute and also to strengthen local government because it was believed that ‘only in an effective and empowered local government can the positive power to promote public good be reinforced and the negative impulse to abuse authority curbed’.1 Besides the obvious institutional advantages of such an arrangement, an empowered local government was likely to create circumstances in which ‘ordinary citizens can hold public servants accountable in the face of asymmetry of power exercised by the bureaucracy, [and] citizens who are directly affected by their action are empowered to exercise oversight functions’.2 An alert local government is necessary to create an engaged citizenry that, by being involved in both policy making and its implementation, is a shield for protecting the moral fabric of governance. The outcome may not be visible instantaneously; what it will lead to is the unleashing of processes whereby citizens become integrally connected with the drive towards creating a system of governance that is ethics-driven and morally sensitive. In view of the growing acceptability of democratic decentralization as a design for governance in India since she became politically free in 1947, this chapter seeks first to identify the theoretical sources of this conceptualization and later to show how it was sought to be applied as an effective means to address governmental deficits arising from the growing incidence of corruption and other malpractices in governance. It is true that the issue of lack of ethics in public life cannot solely be addressed by administrative means, although it will be a meaningful step towards creating an environment in which debasing tendencies in public administration are severely challenged to build ethically tuned and morally defensible systems of public governance. This is easier said than done, although the idea of democratic decentralization is a powerful theoretical formulation with adequate empirical depth to unsettle the well-established arguments that support bureaucratic hegemony in administration. Besides providing the fundamental theoretical ideas of democratic decentralization, which are universal in character, the aim of the chapter is also to show the historical trajectory of the idea in different phases of India’s recent political history. Concerted efforts were made in the past through the two 1992 amendments to the constitution of India – the Seventy-Third and Seventy-Fourth – which seem to have radically changed the texture of the arrangement that came into being in the wake of the common urge for democratic decentralization in governance. It is difficult to survey the experiences of each and every province in democratic India. Hence the chapter has selectively delved into two case studies of Bhagidari in Delhi and Panchayati Raj in West Bengal since they represent unique instances of the successful application of democratic decentralization in
governance in both urban and rural settings respectively. On the basis of a detailed discussion of these two experiments, the chapter substantiates the argument that, in so far as means for ensuring ethics in governance are concerned, democratic decentralization is too persuasive to be ignored so easily. With the growing consolidation of the urge for ethics in public life which is held as a major reason for social, economic and political decadence, the drive for involving the stakeholders in public governance is a politically rewarding and ideologically fulfilling endeavour towards meaningfully addressing the sources of distortion and demeaning influences in governance.