India’s Tryst with Panchayat Elections
A gram panchayat meeting in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh
A fervour of anxiety and enthusiasm all around, making a rendezvous of a laugh and weep, dance and terror and obviously, no attention to social distancing measures. This was the state of affairs in the villages of Rajasthan till the recently concluded Panchayat Poll elections were underway.
In 1993, India took a step ahead and bolstered its structural cooperative federalism by institutionalising decentralisation of power by enacting the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act which established rural local self-government in the country. This concept of Panchayat Raj has a long legacy which can be dated back to the Vedic era.
Today, 27 years down the line, examining India’s tryst with local self-governance lands us into an awkward position which raises the apprehension of the general public towards this very concept. Has this another layer of political representation been able to provide for better governance and representation is quite contestable, but the ways in which these elections are contested should be a subject of stark criticism.
Predominance of Money and Muscle
“My campaign expenses exceeded ₹46 lakhs in this Panchayat election. Liquor constituted the largest part of this expenditure followed by cash distribution and transport among many other things,” says a 57-year-old man whose wife contested from a village in Rajasthan’s Pilani town. On being asked the reason for such irrational expenditures by the contestants in the Panchayat elections, he comments, “Elections are not just limited to winning or losing, it's about the pride of me and my family. It is this pride that doesn’t look at money or muscle to preserve honor. If spending a few more lakhs would have helped me cross the line, I definitely would have done even that.”
An increased limit in the Panchayat election expenditure to ₹50,000 from an earlier limit of ₹20,000 is nothing more than a subject of mockery to contestants. It is interesting to see that the disrupted economy and the currency crunch all over, due to the COVID-19 outbreak seem to have no impact whatsoever on the Panchayat election expenditure of the candidates. Local moneylenders in the village are the biggest source for borrowing money in these elections. So, the threat of inability to repay these loans taken from the unorganised sector always lingers large, thus leading to cases of suicides after unsuccessful election campaigns and even violence which threatens the fabric of law and order in these villages.
Clashes between panels and other cases of violence have become pretty common in Panchayat elections. To deal with such anticipated cases, candidates even ‘hire’ goons on a contractual basis to show their prowess. Such goons are not just misused to attack and deter but to harass and intimidate voters to grapple their votes, either by hook or by crook. People from the backward class are the worst sufferers who have to face the assaults and rage of so-called ‘forward class’ candidates who cannot condone the audacity of Dalit voters going against them. Such cases of misuse of money and muscle power in the Panchayat cases raise apprehensions of the general public on the state election machinery.
Trust Deficit with State Election Commissions
The list of model code of conduct is treated merely as a piece of paper with its violations becoming more brazen and rampant. It raises larger questions and a trust deficit on the state election commission’s role as a watchdog. Are the state election commissions equipped with adequate manpower and resources to play their role? Allegations of state election commissions working under some influence of the ruling regime have also surfaced in recent times. Controversies over its role in various cases like West Bengal Panchayat elections in 2018 and the famous Nand Lal case, develop a crisis of credibility for the SEC’s independence. The State Election Commission’s machinery should be made more robust and independent to cope up with such a trust deficit and maintain the democratic spirit alive.
Invisible Party Lines
While enacting the 73rd and the 74th Amendment Acts, a consensus was reached that elections to the local government should not be escorted on the symbols of political parties, in accordance with the social cleavage theory. But in the wake of establishing a social and political base in the villages, each party supports one or the other candidate. This support is quite evident in the election campaigning as well, with the candidates seeking the votes claiming the support of a political party. This gives an undue advantage to the relatives of politically heavyweight candidates even in the Panchayat elections. Such predominance of political parties even in the Panchayat elections is against the ideas of Gandhi, Lohia who advocated the idea of partyless grassroot democracy.
Civic activism in the rural areas will determine the future pathway of the Panchayat elections. Ensuring level playing field must be foregrounded for the political empowerment of the general public. The true legacy of local self-government can only be carried further by restoring the faith of people by bringing in transparency and accountability in the methods of electing the representatives to the institutions of local self-government.
By Rohan Kataria
Rohan Kataria is a student of Political Sciences and a member of The Symposium Society. Passionate about global affairs and Indian politics.