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'
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
BJP's double standards stand thoroughly exposed.