Governance

Power of the local

Panchayat elections almost contested with the Bihar poll. Is this desirable?

 
By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Friday 20 November 2015

Illustration: Sorit

The Bihar Assembly election has captured national attention. But as the month-long, five-phase polls in the state turned into a bitter game of political polarisation, there were other interesting headlines. Elections for municipal corporations in Maharashtra and local bodies in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala attracted equal political and media attention. Panchayat elections almost contested with the Bihar poll in coverage and attention.

In fact, Narendra Modi took to a micro-blogging site to congratulate the workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for winning the Leh Hill Council elections. Later, the media headlined the BJP’s loss in Uttar Pradesh; particularly in Varanasi, the PM’s constituency. In Kerala, the BJP and Congress are engaged in a bitter fight to win the local bodies. In fact, senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah have invested time and political resources to form an alliance to fight the local elections. This, when constitutionally, local elections are not fought on a party basis. Political parties cannot field candidates for such elections, so they just support them.

Given the high political stakes in a major state like Bihar, it is understandable that the Assembly elections have turned into a national electoral event. It has also created history: Narendra Modi became the first prime minister to hold 30 rallies for a state election. But why are local body polls generating so much national attention?

The foremost reason could be that the panchayati raj form of government has matured into a solid political forum at the village level. More than 20 years of regular elections and the ever-increasing roles of panchayats in local development have contributed to their emergence as a formidable political platform for both national and regional parties. Panchayats are the places where future state and national leaders are incubated. Often, panchayat leaders work as political parties’ foot soldiers during state and national elections. Earlier regimes in West Bengal and Kerala have been known to use panchayat leaders to consolidate political influence. Even Shah’s now-famous ªbooth managementº strategy is being implemented through panchayat-level leaders. Thus, panchayats have become a kind of systematic investment plan (SIP) for political parties to deepen their influence.

The second and most relevant reason is the change in the development delivery regime. All welfare programmes are routed through the panchayats now. In fact, the panchayat head is the only elected representative in India who has executive roles as well. A prime minister doesn’t sign a cheque, but a sarpanch has that power. It means that while a state or the Union government can create many development schemes, they would be implemented by the panchayats. Without control over them, a party in power loses the political mileage that can be derived from the scheme. Politically, it creates a situation where state or national parties can’t ignore panchayats. The argument that the same party ruling both at the Centre as well as the state results in better development possibilities seems to be extending to the panchayat level too. Already, there are trends of state-ruling parties using this argument of better political coordination for better development.

But is this desirable? The Panchayati Raj Act does not allow political parties to contest local elections. This is because of the long debate that preceded this law’s enactment. Many debated that political parties’ interference would disturb local bodies, which are supposed to be based on the core principle of community camaraderie. But there is hardly any opposition to the recent trend of political parties engaging deeply in local elections. Maybe this is the way decentralisation of power unfolds in a democracy: everything is political in the end.

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