PUCL Bulletin, September 2002

Elections in Gujarat:
A dismal record of grassroots democracy

-- By George Mathew

The Vociferous arguments advanced by the BJP leaders favouring early elections in Gujarat are rather Impressive. Some of them have been busy quoting the Constitution. Early elections in the State, they argue, would be in conformity with democratic and constitutional norms. When political leaders at the helm claim to strictly follow democratic traditions, it should give enormous confidence to ordinary citizens. If that be the case, we have nothing to worry.

However, some basic questions come to mind when the BJP leaders make protestations about their democratic faith. Why do they cite some Articles or clauses to buttress their political objectives and ignore inconvenient ones?

Article 243E(1) of the Constitution says: "Every Panchayat, unless sooner dissolved under any law for the time being in force, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting and no longer... (3) An election to constitute a Panchayat shall be completed (a) before the expiry of its duration specified in clause (1); (b) before the expiration of a period of six months from the date of its dissolution". Article 243U has similar wordings for municipalities.

Panchayats and municipalities are "institutions of self-government" (243G and 243W) and they are die most important instrumentalities of democracy. Without meaningful and effective democratic institutions at the grassroots, all institutions at the higher level will be form without content. But what has been the history of BJP-ruled States? Gujarat is the worst example.

The 73rd Constitution Amendment was extended to the Fifth Schedule Areas in December 1996. Within a year the State Governments were expected to pass legislation in conformity with this Extension Act. That year, i.e. 1997, the BJP-ruled States did not care to honour the constitutional requirements.

Then comes the tragic story of postponement after postponement of panchayat elections in Gujarat. The panchayat elections at all levels were due in June 2000. They were postponed initially for three months. On September 24, 2000, elections were held to 23 zilla panchayats, 210 taluka panchayats and six municipalities. But not to the gram panchayats. In the third week of October, the Government announced that the gram panchayat elections would be held on December 3, but on November 4 it issued an ordinance to remove clause 257 (2) from tile Gujarat Panchayat Act and postponed the gram panchayat elections for another three months after a Cabinet meeting in which the Panchayat Minister was not present.

It is common knowledge that zilla panchayats, taluka panchayats, and gram panchayats are expected to function as one entity. Can one entity function smoothly and effectively in the absence of the other? The BJP and the Gujarat Government could not care less.

One of the reasons put forward by the BJP for not holding the panchayat elections was drought. Can it be a valid reason? In a country the size of ours, some part or the other is always under the spell of drought or some other calamity. That the BJP suffers from selective amnesia is evident from the fact that it put the panchayat poll on hold while Assembly elections were held in 1995 despite serious drought conditions.

When the gram panchayat elections were finally set in motion in December 2001, after a delay of one-and-a-half years, the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, came up with a novel but totally anti-democratic scheme called 'Samras Gram' (harmonious village), under which cash awards up to Rs. one lakh were announced for those gram panchayats whose members were elected unopposed. Only the BJP could believe that a democratic contest creates enmity among the people. A weird but dangerous premise. And the BJP's ostensible objective, of course, was to take away what our Constitution has given to every citizen - the right to contest and the right to vote. If the BJP had its way, this reward-induced mechanism for guided democracy would have been extended to other levels of democratic governance as well.

The Sarvodaya leader, Chunibhai Vaidya, had remarked that pressing for unanimous elections was dangerous because it permitted the dominant communities to take control of the village panchayats. Of course, that was the BJP leaders' game plan. And a minister one at that. When Modi made a mockery of local democracy by giving monetary Incentives from the exchequer to do away with the democratic contest, no BJP spokesperson in New Delhi questioned him. Any effort to create a culture of 'manufacturing consent' undermines the very roots of local democracy and tends to stunt the silent revolution under way in our villages with ordinary people taking control of their lives.

The people of Gujarat realised that it was the BJP way of muzzling the voice of the weak - Dalits, Adivasis, backward castes and women in the name of social harmony and manufactured consensus.

As a result, when the panchayat elections were held, they gave a stunning blow to Modi and the BJP. Very few panchayats bought the 'Samras Gram' idea.

Another serious anti-democracy move was the Gujarat Government notification dated November 23, 2000, denying reservation to the Adivasis In the Fifth Schedule Areas. Just 48 hours before the gram panchayat elections were announced, the Government issued the notification amending the Gujarat Panchayats Act, 1993, removing the provisions of sub-clause (a) of sub-section 5 of Section 9 of the Panchayats Act applicable to the gram panchayats in the Fifth Schedule Areas, where the population of the Scheduled Tribes is less than 25 per cent of the total population of a gram panchayat. The original sub-clause had provided reservation of panchayat seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population lo the total population of the village. Along with this notification, a Government order was also issued reorganising 34 gram panchayats and creating 81 gram panchayats out of them. How can a State Government delimit panchayats areas just two days prior to the election notification?

In June 2002, the State Government postponed the elections to two district panchayats, 15 taluka panchayats and 86 municipalities. The reason cited was the imminent monsoon. For the past two years, these local bodies were under the control of administrators. There is no democratic accountability to the people but the BJP has no qualms about it. Incidentally, postponement came when the State Election Commission was all set to conduct the elections.

Why these double standards? If only democratically elected local bodies had been in place with powers, personnel and resources, Gujarat would have been spared the genocide perpetrated by the communal elements. It is evident that the BJP is only paying lip service to democracy and the Constitution. The BJP leaders' hearts bleed not for democracy, transparency and accountability but for their divisive agenda. A senior BJP leader has been quoting the Constitution out of context. He has now maintained that the Election Commission does not have an unabridged right to decide on polls. The BJP wants elections in Jammu and Kashmir held under Governor's rule. But in Gujarat, Modi has already been appointed caretaker Chief Minister.
The BJP's double standards stand thoroughly exposed.

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