The recent local bodies elections in Kerala have thrown up an interesting statistic — a large number of MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) workers have been elected. Of the 15,961 village panchayat members elected, 2,007 are MGNREGS workers, whereas 147 of the 2,000 plus block panchayat members are MGNREGS workers, among them 140 women. This record number of MGNREGS workers entering local bodies has implications for grass roots democracy and politics in the state where assembly elections are due this year.
The pandemic, lockdown and the economic crisis have forced a large number of people, particularly women, to register for work under MGNREGS. Among these workers, many are also involved in the Kudumbashree Mission, a women’s self-help group platform facilitated by the state government, which gives them relatively high public visibility besides experience in management of public goods and services — Kudumbashree units are involved in a range of activities, from the running of canteens and catering units to collection and disposal of garbage in cities. Not surprisingly, political parties, which remain male preserves, turned to MGNREGS for potential candidates to contest local bodies, where 50 per cent seats are reserved for women. This is a welcome departure from the usual practice of party workers nominating family members as candidates when their seats get reserved for women. In short, a public welfare instrument, often ridiculed as a symbol of state failure in creating productive assets, has become a nursery for producing grass roots leaders besides providing employment in times of economic slowdown. The infusion of this new category of public representatives is likely to improve the functioning of the local bodies for two reasons. One, these are people who are already familiar with the issues and problems at the grass roots, and two, their entry into public service is not because of kinship or party loyalty but for their proven record as workers and activists. The next step for political parties is to field the best of these local bodies’ representatives in assembly and parliament elections.
This Kerala model of political representation and empowerment can be replicated in other states. It will infuse fresh blood, and new ideas, into electoral politics and governance.
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