Local governance in Pakistan has remained a contentious issue with a chequered history. While devising any scheme of human welfare a Kantian moral imperative should be the sole consideration ie doing good only for the sake of good. In specific context of framing a local governance system the only Kantian moral imperative should be the genuine empowerment of people by giving them the capability set to decide themselves the things which they value most in their day to day life. There are many nuts and bolts of local governance which need due attention while designing any such system but the issue which demands utmost attention is the potential threat of elite capture of the system. Avoiding such a happening in a society characterized by acute social and economic inequality remains a complex policy problem. Many decades ago C. Wright Mills wrote in The Power Elite ‘The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighbourhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern’. He says ‘The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences’. While acknowledging the existence of a wide gulf between power elite and the masses trapped in their ‘ordinary environments’ it is really worthwhile to have a keen focus on the dynamics of power relations in our own society while experimenting with local governance. Control over local sources of social and economic power easily facilitates the elite capture of power. For meaningful empowerment of people ground realities must not be brushed aside. Without placing inbuilt safeguards against a real and present spectre of elite capture of power at local level any scheme to devolve power may prove counterproductive by giving more power to the local elite at the expense of masses. In order to preclude the occurrence of elite capture of power at local level it is important to give attention to the difference between representative and participatory governance. In representative model of democratic governance citizens participate only as voters once at the time of elections while the decision making is made by the elected few during the tenure of a local government. At national and large sub-national tiers of governance probably this is the only practical way of doing things because of the large scale of territorial and population units. In contrast, participatory governance means active participation of citizens in all important policy decisions throughout the tenure of a government. Smaller the size of a territorial unit the more it becomes feasible to increase the extent of direct participation of citizens in decision process. In the Indian state of Kerala, which is now known as a development prototype, village level local development plans are devised and discussed in open village assemblies where large number of villagers directly participate in decision-making. The lesson which we may learn from relatively similar social setting is that it is useful to make ‘participation’ the kernel of the local government system. In the absence of actual participation by people in decision process social and economic inequalities are further accentuated because the elite can decide the allocation of resources as per their own preferences. “The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences” — C Wright Mills An egalitarian society with a relatively less unequal distribution of economic and social power would be a better candidate to have institution of local governance. But in the absence of such favourable conditions it becomes essential that the real participation of the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable in society is ensured by incorporating extraordinary safeguards against potential elite capture. The real solution is a painstaking effort to reduce social and economic inequality by effective redistribution of wealth and by educating the masses about their rights. But in short run the way forward is to incorporate some safeguards in the governance system like giving a reasonable representation to all the disadvantaged segments in power structure which to some extent was experimented in the local government system in Pakistan which was introduced in 2001. However, in the past, despite provision of such special representation the power wielded by the local influential resulted in thwarting the objective of countering elite power who by getting their own proxies placed in special seats quite effectively failed the whole concept of special representation. In any future local governance system, the reasonable attention should be given to potential of such recurrence while incorporating the idea of special representation for the disadvantaged. In the local government system of 2001 there was a legal provision to have a district ombudsperson but this was never put in place. Acknowledging the past experience with local governance and threat of elite capture to the disadvantage of the majority, it is imperative to ensure provision of such a mechanism to hold power accountable to redress the public grievances. Bringing the local governance to the lowest tier of population, a village, provides an opportunity of practising direct participation. The idea of decision-making in open village assemblies can be incorporated because it is quite practical at this micro tier to make decision process participatory. What needs to be done is to ensure presence of the poorest and the most vulnerable in local level decision process through real participation rather than just casting a vote once after a few years and then remaining a silent spectator of power play. It is high time we acknowledged the dynamics of social power relations while designing a system of local governance. The writer is a governance and development policy analyst Published in Daily Times, December 3rd 2018.