February 5, 2021 11:03:35 pm
The recently concluded Gram Panchayat (GP) elections in Maharashtra saw rampant use of money and muscle power. A concerned State Election Commission took on itself to cancel elections to three village panchayats, where open auction of seats was caught on camera. In around 8 per cent of the panchayats, reports had come in on unopposed elections. What concerned many was the use of coercion to go for unopposed elections wherein money acted as the lever to tilt elections for some particular candidates.
This time we saw around 10 per cent of the gram panchayats and 21 per cent of the members being elected unopposed. Is this the general trend in Maharashtra? Have you observed a growth in this trend?
A total of 27,107 seats out of around 1,25,562 seats (around 21.6%) in 14,222 GPs have been declared elected in the elections conducted in January 2021. The number of entire GP getting unopposed this time is 1,198 out of 14,222 i.e. 8.4%. In the different GP elections held in 2015, the percentage of unopposed seats varies from 16.3% to 29.4% and for entire GP, it varies from 7.44% to 9.6%. In fact, in several elections held from 2016 to 2019, the percentages vary from 20.5% to 36.5% for seats and 3.8% to 15.4% in entire GPs. So, this seems to be a general trend only.
The Bombay Village Panchayats Act 1959 does not clearly say anything about unopposed elections. Of course, unopposed elections are supposed to be more of an exception than rule. But as your office had observed, and various other ground-level activists say, this is not a healthy trend. In many areas, there were reports of micro- management of the elections by a few to avoid elections. Your office had asked district collectors to submit reports about this. What is the general observation in this regard?
Rule 15 of The Bombay Village Panchayats Election Rules 1959 does provide for the process to be followed for uncontested elections. So, the Rules have visualised a position where the number of candidates is equal to or less than the number of seats in a particular category.
It is true this should be an exception and not a rule. Unopposed elections make sense only when there is total unanimity with the free will of all voters. Like the ‘right to vote’, ‘right to contest’ also is an equally important right and it cannot be taken away by the so-called “unanimity” if it has been achieved by financial power. So, electing candidates unopposed just because they can contribute money for the welfare of the village from their own resources, in my view, is undemocratic. Every voter, whether rich or poor, must have the equal right to contest.
Your office had taken the drastic step of cancelling the elections for two villages where the seats were openly auctioned. Auction, it seems, has become a very common phenomenon in some areas. What legal checks do you think can be put in place to stem such practices out?
This ”auction” business in the Panchayat elections appears to be relatively new. Perhaps a new invention of the rich and powerful to get elected. It is not easy to control such things by just amending laws. It requires awareness at the level of citizens and vigilance at the level of election machinery. It was encouraging that some aware citizens had brought such incidents to the notice of the authorities. The action of SEC of cancelling elections in three Gram Panchayats (two in Nashik and one in Nandurbar) would definitely work as a deterrent. We have also asked the collectors and SPs to initiate action against such wrongdoers, which will have its own impact.
In regards to unopposed elections, has the time to come to define the procedure for doing so? Will your office be coming up with rules or writing to the government to frame the same?
Theoretically, we cannot find fault if the voters on their own free will accept a candidate unopposed. The Commission, however, is aware that in reality, malpractices do occur where the opposing candidates are coerced, influenced or threatened to not to contest or withdraw his/her nomination, so that a particular candidate is elected unopposed. That is why the Commission has issued standing orders in the past to not to declare the results of such elections without prior approval of the Commission. The Commission grants approval to these unopposed elections after carefully examining such cases and after going through the reports of district authorities
Some of the people’s representatives have taken on themselves to promote such elections. Should checks and balances be brought on them?
It may be true the practice of unopposed elections is promoted by some local leaders. But the idea of unopposed elections itself is less of an issue. It’s electing candidates only on the basis of their money power that concerns us. As I mentioned earlier, some steps taken by SEC would help. But the real change can come only with awareness.
Village Panchayats are the grassroot-level democratic institutions. How do you think can true democratic values be preserved in them?
Village Panchayats are the first and lowest rung of democracy. It is a nursery for those who want to represent citizens on different political forums. If right values are learnt and right processes are followed at this level, better candidates can be produced for the second and third tiers. So, we have to take the elections of Gram Panchayats seriously to provide a strong foundation for the higher levels of democracy.
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