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Panchayat Elections: POLITICS IN APOLITICAL BODIES, By Dr S Saraswathi, 24 November, 2017 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 24 November 2017

Panchayat Elections


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Panchayat elections have become a hotbed of politics in all States. November 17, fixed by the Madras High Court to complete panchayat elections in Tamil Nadu, which were actually due a year ago, has gone without any progress in the matter. The State is still not ready to conduct this routine democratic operation because of unsteady State-level party politics.


West Bengal Government of Trinamool Congress extends its benevolence to rural folks and starts a scheme of gifting one cow for each rural family with distribution of 2,000 cows in Birbhum district. This follows last year’s bounty with chicken and goats. The State conducted election to urban local bodies recently, and has to face panchayat election shortly. Hence, freebies for rural population get priority.


Reports from Arunachal Pradesh early this year inform that 549 panchayat leaders joined the BJP in the presence of the Chief Minister who is reported to have expressed his view that the process would continue till all panchayat leaders joined the BJP. “Our grassroot is the panchayat leaders”, he said.


Truly, Panchayati Raj with its three-tier popular bodies elected every five years is very important for all political parties to build their strength. This is also acknowledged by all despite the fact that panchayats are conceived to be apolitical in organisational set up and functioning. Arunachal Pradesh government has published a handbook intended for the use of political parties and candidates contesting panchayat elections in the State thus acknowledging the role of parties in panchayats.


Laws pertaining to panchayat elections are made by State Legislatures. Holding election to panchayat bodies is the responsibility of the State Election Commissions set up under the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution creating Panchayati Raj. Over-all superintendence, direction, and control of panchayat elections vest with the Commission.


Gram Panchayat elections are held on non-political basis meaning strictly on non-participation of political parties under their name and symbol. Still, media reports show that in recent panchayat elections in Maharashtra, all major parties – the BJP, Shiv Sena, NCP, and the Congress claimed first place in victory rank. Some parties furnish the number of elected members party-wise. State Election Commissions do not collect data on the performance of political parties in village panchayat elections.


Indeed, politics has entrenched panchayat elections. Politicians also have no hesitation to engage their party workers in electioneering and have no inhibition to lobby with elected candidates to bring them to their side in order to wield power over the local bodies.  Verily, panchayat election is no small matter for parties in power, out of power, and newcomers.


In Karnataka, for instance, where panchayat elections were held in 2016, all parties were fielding candidates and canvassing for votes vigorously to strengthen their base at grassroots. They avoided using party name and symbol as the panchayat law strictly prohibits elections on party lines.


In reality, Gram Panchayats constitute the lowest rung in the political network and elected members play an important role in the election to Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads. They will naturally have influence in mobilizing votes in Assembly elections also. They can manipulate BPL list, and exert influence in choosing beneficiaries of various social welfare schemes. This way, panchayats constitute vote banks and parties vie with one another to capture block votes. In small villages, local panchayat leaders do carry much influence in deciding vote pattern at various levels from the wards.


Participation of parties in panchayat elections is so open and acknowledged that the Madras High Court has asked the State Election Commission to write to political parties to desist from fielding candidates with criminal background. Pervasive link between crime and politics seems to have penetrated down to the panchayat level.


Political parties have their respective organisations/branches at the State, district, block, and village levels long before Panchayati Raj bodies under Constitutional Amendment were set up.  These organisations have gained status and popularity that cannot be overlooked, and are keen on strengthening their hold over panchayat members so as to tighten the bond between political party and local administration.


Party politics in local bodies has been a controversial issue even in the pre-independence panchayat system. Active party politics have led to abolition of taluk boards and district boards in Madras Presidency when the interests of the party holding power in the provincial government were affected. At the same time, local boards provided political training and education for many leaders who became successful politicians at the provincial level thus acting as constructive political stepping stones.


Today, the case is different, the common pattern being State level politicians filling up places at local levels with their aides and loyal subordinates. Power flows from the top to bottom in many parties and not built from the base.


All political parties except the Communists have supported non-party election to panchayat bodies. The Left Front in Bengal alone built its edifice on the foundations of Panchayati Raj of 1970s. For the first time in the country, in 1978, in West Bengal, political parties officially contested panchayat elections with their party symbols. There was considerable opposition to this from all parties except the communists who said that direct involvement of parties would make panchayat leadership more disciplined and responsible in managing these grassroots democratic bodies. It was believed that it would also put an end to narrow caste and sectarian interests that governed local politics.


Tripura and Kerala subscribed to this viewpoint and conducted panchayat elections on party symbols. In Andhra Pradesh, when Telugu Desam Party came to power, Mandal Praja Parishad, and Zilla Praja Parishad under Panchayat Act of 1986 were conducted on party lines in 1987. It evoked great excitement and was welcomed as “mini General election”.


The TMC Government wanted to take direct politics out of panchayat election in 2011 evidently as a blow to the Communist Party. The Chief Minister is of the view that the step would crush petty politics that often halts development projects in rural areas. Gujarat panchayat elections have long been a political battle-field between the Congress and the BJP. Wherever party participation is no secret, so are alliances and consequent unions and splits. In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad, depending on its strong grassroots support, parted company with the State-level ally, the BJP, and contested panchayat elections alone.


The significance of panchayat elections to all parties has grown so much that the BJP unleashed vigorous campaigning before Odisha panchayat election in February 2017 and established its growing popularity.


Party involvement in local board elections is common in almost all countries. In UK and USA, several interest groups are also in the fray. In South Africa, there is also the system of proportional representation to provide seats in proportion to the vote share of parties. Canada is an exception to the normal pattern in that most of the municipal councils are non-partisan and elect independents.


With politics pervading every institution, political parties, even if barred from contesting panchayat election, will find entry. People have to function as watchdogs and prevent partisan functioning of panchayats particularly in implementing social welfare schemes. Gram Sabhas must be convened and they should wield the power entrusted with them. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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