The country is at the moment eagerly awaiting the election results from five crucial states, including Uttar Pradesh. The federal structure of Indian polity with clear cut distinction of electoral processes and powers between the state and the centre is a fairly modern phenomenon. However, the democratic political system that we see in existence not just in India but across the world had their predecessors in early Indian political thought going back to 600-300 BC.
The sixth century BC saw a significant transition in political system with the establishment of oligarchies, kingdoms and chiefdoms. The change was particularly visible in north India around the Ganges plain. Permanent settlement in a particular area gave a geographical identity to a clan, and maintaining possession of this geographical territory was the necessary prerequisite to the newer political order.
While it is difficult to point out the precise way in which heads in these newer political systems were chosen, literature available from the period can give us some clue. For instance one of the Vedic texts, Aitareya Brahamana, tells us how Gods and demons were at war and the gods were suffering badly at the hands of the enemies. So they met together and decided that they needed a raja to lead them in the battle. They appointed Soma as their king and the tide soon turned in their favour. This legend suggests that in the earliest times kingship in India was thought to be based upon human need and military necessity, and that the king’s first duty was to lead his subjects in war. This story is repeated in other texts of the period as well in an altered manner, reflecting upon what could have been (but not necessarily was) the nature of governance in the period.
Following are the two different forms of political systems existing in India between the the sixth and third century BC. While one form occupied core areas, the other existed in peripheries of the same, each having their own specific features.
Kingdoms referred to a centralised government with the king’s sovereignty as its basis. Brahmanical legitimation was one of the most significant aspects of kingdoms in the north India of sixth century BC. The king could exercise coercion in enforcing laws and the ruling family became a dynasty with an emphasis on primogeniture. The king was assisted by ministers and advisory councils.
The role of the king contained within it an aspect of divinity. It was reinforced from time to time by elaborate ritual sacrifices, observing the instructions of the Vedic corpus. A number of kingdoms mentioned in literature of the period include Kashi (now Banaras), Kosala (presently the region north-east of Kashi) and Magadha (present south Bihar).
The Gana Sanghas were the kind of political system typically located on the peripheries of larger kingdoms. They tended to occupy less fertile, hilly tracts having a more tribal character. They rejected the Vedic orthodoxy and maintained an alternative tradition. As explained by historian Romila Thapar, the term ‘gana-sangha’ or ‘gana-rajya’ has the connotation of gana, referring to those who claim to be of equal status, and sangha, meaning an assembly or rajya, referring to governance.
The Gana Sanghas were basically systems in which heads of families belonging to a clan governed the territory of the clan through an assembly. The term has been translated in various ways. While initially the term ‘democracy’ was applied for them, it went on to be rejected on grounds of the fact that power was highly concentrated in the hands of one or few families. Rather the word ‘republic’ was preferred since it made social stratification a part of its system. Another term preferred was ‘oligarchy’ that emphasised the power of the ruling families.
The Shakyas, Koliyas, Mallas, Vrijjis and Vrishnis are examples of gana sanghas in north India. The most powerful among these gana sanghas at this point was the Virijjain confederacy of which the chief element was the tribe of the Licchavis. Sources suggest that the Licchavis had no less than 7707 rajas, a term perhaps referring to all heads of families who could take part in the tribal assembly.