“Elections are the essence of democracy and elections which are long overdue has deprived the voters of Bengaluru City (of an opportunity) in electing their representatives, thus causing inconvenience and hardship,” the Karnataka High Court said in its September 30 order regarding the Bengaluru city council polls due since September 2020.
With eight months to go for the Karnataka Assembly polls, there seems to be a growing perception among grassroots politicians in the state that no political party is interested in the conduct of local body polls amid the looming state polls, notwithstanding the orders of the high court and the Supreme Court for the conduct of immediate polls for local bodies whose terms have ended.
In Karnataka, elections have been due for the 243-seat Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) since September 2020 and for 1098 Zilla Panchayat seats and 3903 Taluk Panchayat seats across the state since March 2021.
The elections for the Bengaluru city council was expected to be held in the next couple of months after the BJP-led Karnataka government completed a delimitation exercise to create 45 new wards in the city on July 14 and fixed reservations for OBC and women in the city council on August 16. The delimitation exercise has passed the initial test of law in the high court but the reservations for OBC and women has been quashed by the court for being “unscientific and arbitrary”.
The high court has asked the BJP government to redo the reservations in a scientific manner and to ensure completion of the BBMP polls by December 31. “I hope and trust that the state government shall make all endeavours to complete the election process on or before 31.12.2022,” Justice Hemant Chandangoudar of the high court ordered on September 30.
However, many former Bengaluru councillors do not believe that the BBMP polls could be held before the state Assembly polls slated for May 2023. “The government is not interested in conducting the civic polls. This cycle of litigation to impede the conduct of the polls is going to go on till the Assembly polls. All political parties are not interested in the conduct of civic polls and this is not a new phenomenon,” said an ex-Congress councillor.
“The MLAs and MPs want to have control over all affairs in a region. When Rajiv Gandhi introduced the Panchayat Raj system for decentralising power it was envisioned that there should not be a single day when there are vacancies in local bodies for failure to conduct polls – even if a Legislative Assembly can be kept in suspended animation for up to six months,” the former councillor said.
The Karnataka high court in fact said on September 30 that the Bengaluru civic polls cannot be held if reservations continue to be litigated over by various groups. It made the remarks after a litigant informed the court that there were anomalies in reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes as well in the August 16 notification of the state government.
“Why do you want to stop elections? There will be no elections at all at this cost. You do not want elections at the end of the day. Let them satisfy the triple test (prescribed by the SC) and let the elections go on,” the HC said.
State governments tend to use their powers to prescribe the reservations for local bodies once in five years and delimitation of constituencies once in 10 years to control the holding of elections to local bodies, say former Bengaluru councillors. The BJP government in Karnataka has delayed the BBMP elections since September 2020 by citing the need for delimitation of constituencies and bringing in a new reservation matrix.
“The Zilla Panchayat polls in Karnataka are in the courts, the Taluk Panchayat polls are in the courts. The Gram Panchayat and some city council polls were held only after the orders of the courts,” said an ex-Bengaluru councillor.
“Since Rajiv Gandhi brought in the Panchayat Raj system and the devolution of powers to urban local bodies, the Congress party is wary about avoiding local polls when it is in power. When S M Krishna was the CM (between 1999-2004) local polls were held a month ahead of schedule. When Siddaramaiah was the CM (2013-2018) the polls were held a month after the terms of local bodies. The BJP has often delayed the polls for long periods. In the period between 2007-2010 elections were not held and the courts had to intervene. Now the same thing is being done again,” the former councillor said.
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in an order on May 10 in the course of adjudication of issues relating to local polls in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, said delays in holding elections “would inevitably result in creating hiatus situation upon expiry of five year terms of the outgoing elected body. Such an eventuality needs to be eschewed by all the duty holders. A priori, it is not only a constitutional obligation of the State Election Commission but also of the State Government and the constitutional Courts.”
“We also make it clear that this order and directions given are not limited to the Madhya Pradesh State Election Commission/State of Madhya Pradesh; and Maharashtra State Election Commission/State of Maharashtra in terms of a similar order passed on 04.05.2022, but to all the States/Union Territories and the respective Election Commission to abide by the same without fail to uphold the constitutional mandate,” the apex court bench said.
On December 15, 2021, the apex court had ordered for all OBC seats to be declared general seats for the conduct of local polls in Maharashtra which had been delayed due to the lack of a scientific OBC quota plan as sought by the SC.
The SC in an order on January 19, 2022 said that in the states the “election to any local body cannot be postponed beyond the statutory period” and that “the concerned (State) Election Commission ought to notify proportionate seats as open category seats, and proceed with the elections of the local bodies” in the event of delays in carving out the OBC reservation matrix.
The top court allowed the Karnataka government on July 28, 2022 to create reservations in the BBMP for OBCs despite polls being delayed by nearly two years since the BBMP is a newly-constituted body under the BBMP Act, 2020 and the reservations on a rotation basis as prescribed under Article 243T of the Constitution of India was not applicable to the reconstituted local body.
The ruling BJP and the principal Opposition Congress have stated that civic polls cannot be held in Karnataka without prescribed quotas for the OBC communities, which make up nearly 33 percent of the population in the state. An exercise carried out by the BJP government to prescribe OBC quota for the BBMP on the basis of empirical data – as sought by the SC in a 2010 order for OBC reservations in local bodies – was declared unscientific and imaginary by the HC on September 30.