LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Panchayat elections have just concluded in Uttar Pradesh. With that ends a five-yearly democratic process, introduced in India in the early nineties in fulfilment of a dream nurtured by someone no less than the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi.
The idea behind holding such elections was to empower people’s representatives at the grassroots level through establishment of a local-self government in all villages.
However, the manner in which the elections process has been carried out through the years speaks volumes of how all players in the system have systematically defeated the very fundamentals of the Mahatma’s dream of ushering in a “panchayati raj” in the country.
What appears to have punctured the whole concept behind the process is the inclusion of the element of indirect election at one level. It is this indirect election that has given rise to the play of money power, muscle power and blatant misuse of government authority, which has led to altering the original mandate of the people.
While the four-tier election is largely direct and village folk elect ‘gram pradhans’ and ‘gram panchayat’ members, the election of zila panchayat chiefs and block chiefs is done indirectly by the directly elected members. That is where all hell breaks loose, but no meaningful voice is raised against the malpractices simply because successive political parties in power manage to reap their own harvest out of the irregularities that have prevailed and grown with the passage of time.
It was therefore no surprise for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be revelling in the glory of its most recent victory last month. BJP won 66 of the state’s 75 seats of zila panchayat chiefs. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his team are busy blowing their own trumpet for this victory which is dutifully being attributed to “the development” carried out by his government as also to the policies and framework laid out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
No one, however, has cared to explain the magic behind the overnight conversion of a humiliating defeat in the election of zila panchayat members into a resounding victory at the ‘adhyaksha’ (chief) level.
In all, a poll was held for the position of 3,051 members of zila panchayats in April-May, 2021. While the nominations were not done on party lines, all mainstream political parties openly declared their support for different candidates. The results showed that Samajwadi Party had led with as many as 853 winners, followed by BJP’s 732 and BSP’s 321. The remaining winners were independents.
However, the numbers won by opposition parties were rendered meaningless by the party in power, which managed to twist and turn the result completely. Take for instance, the case of Bijnor district in western UP, where BJP supported candidates had won only five seats of members. But when it came to electing the local zila panchayat chief, this figure swelled to 20, which makes it obvious that 15 members were won over by the ruling party by whatever means – money power, muscle power or official intimidation
Almost similar was the case of Muzaffarnagar, where BJP had only 13 members , but as many as 30 swarmed to ensure victory of a BJP nominated candidate for the zila panchayat chief’s post. Even in the state capital, Lucknow, where there were many scanners to keep a watch, the final result went in favour of BJP even though it had a very poor number of elected members. In fact, SP had won 10 of the 25 members’ seats in Lucknow. BSP stood at the next position with four members, while the BJP trailed with just three members. The remaining were independents. Yet, the BJP managed to have its own nominee elected as the zila panchayat chairman with a score of 14.
At the end of the day, BJP has swept with 67 zila panchayat chairmen. SP trails behind with a paltry five, RLD with just one and two independents, supported by powerful ‘bahubalis’ (musclemen). One of these happened to be the wife of dreaded mafia don turned politician and MP, Dhananjay Singh, the other was a protege of powerful feudal lord Raghuraj Pratap Singh , better known as Raja Bhaiya, an independent MLA.
Ideally, such a roaring victory in a rural election, barely seven months before the state assembly poll would be considered as a precursor to the eventual battle of the ballot in March 2022. However, the manner in which all democratic norms have been bruised and battered in the panchayat chairpersons poll, raises serious doubts about the same trend playing out at the assembly election.
Going by the past experience of BJP’s political rivals, it can be stated quite affirmatively that the picture does not remain rosy. After all, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party had almost as many seats in the previous panchayat polls in 2015, when 80 percent of the zila panchayat chairpersons carried the SP flag. Yet the party lost miserably in 2017 state elections with a score of just 47 in the 403-member UP assembly, where BJP ruled with a record 312 seats. Likewise, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) managed its supremacy on 85 percent seats of Zila panchayat chiefs in 2010. However, the state assembly poll that followed in 2012, brought the party’s graph down to 80, while Akhilesh rode on to power with 224 seats.
Yet, it goes without saying that with its village level chieftains in place now, the ruling party is surely better equipped to counter the misgivings of the people, who faced hell on account of the gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 second wave, which took an untold toll at the grassroots level. That the Yogi Adityanath government has moved heaven and earth to cover up its Covid failures through a blitzkrieg of publicity campaigns is an open secret. But whether this will pay the desired political dividends remains a million dollar question.
Sharat Pradhan is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Lucknow. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.