BY REVERSING an MVA government decision and going in for direct election to heads of local bodies, the Eknath Shinde-led government has its eye on politics at the grass-root level where the Congress and NCP continue to have a hold.
The coalition government of the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena and BJP announced last week that presidents of nagar panchayats and nagar parishads, and sarpanchs of gram panchayats, will be elected directly, instead of by members of the respective local bodies.
The BJP-Sena government led by Devendra Fadnavis had in 2018 first announced direct election to these bodies, overruling protests by the Congress and NCP. When the MVA government came in a year later, it had reversed this.
With 45% of its population urban, Maharashtra has 28 municipal corporations and 226 municipal councils. In the rural area, there are zilla parishads, gram samitis, and gram panchayats – 34 Zilla Parishad , 351 samitis and 28,813 panchayats in all. Elections to the local bodies, held every five years, are due this year.
Defending direct election to grass-root bodies, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said it would bring “transparency and accountability”. “When people directly elect their sarpanch, it helps unite villagers… When such decisions had been left to a handful of elected members in a panchayat, it led to sharp polarisation and bitter politics. Such enmity at grass-root level hampers development in villages,” he said.
However, the Congress and NCP see a simpler reason: that at least 55-60% of the state’s rural bodies are politically inclined towards them, an association built courtesy the Congress and NCP’s hold on the wider cooperative network. Till 2014, they swept elections to the zilla parishad, gram samitis and panchayats.
But with the entry of Fadnavis and rise of the BJP, their hold has been slipping. Out of the 28 municipal corporations, the BJP won 13 in 2017, while the Congress and NCP also saw their control on rural bodies falling. Once direct elections were introduced, the BJP claimed to have won 50% of the sarpanch posts – though that was contested by the Congress and NCP as local polls are not fought on party symbols.
NCP leader Ajit Pawar gives the exact opposite reason to Fadnavis’s, to counter the argument for direct election. “Our opposition to direct polls is based on ground reality. When you have a sarpanch representing one party and elected members in gram panchayats represent another party, it leads to clashes. In such a situation, the development work in a village gets adversely affected.”
In fact, back in 2006, the Congress-NCP government had introduced direct election to local bodies, only to roll the same back due to such disputes at the grass-root level. There were instances where a majority of the elected members belonged to the NCP, and the sarpanch was the Sena’s, resulting in a stalemate in taking decisions.
A BJP general secretary requesting anonymity said, “In politics, everything is fair. The indirect election model was adopted by the MVA as it suited their politics. We are going for direct polls as it suits our politics. What remains constant is in both cases the idea of the parties was an expansion of their respective organisations.”