There has been tremendous interest generated in the panchayat polls scheduled for August 10, with over 5000 candidates in the fray and, as reported by a section of the media, one youth who returned from abroad with the sole intention of contesting the polls in his village. In light of the interest generated and the candidates in the fray, one would imagine that grassroots democracy in the State is thriving. Yet, these are the same polls that the government attempted to postpone on flimsy reasons but few from the village bodies really thought it was worth challenging the government on the postponement.
Under normal circumstances, Goa would have completed the panchayat poll process long before this day as the new panchayat bodies had to be in place by June 19, 2022, the day when the five-year term of the panchayats ended.
Administratively, the government stepped in following the postponement of the panchayat elections appointing administrators for the 186 village panchayats, to ensure that the basic tasks of the panchayats were not affected and that village life would not be disrupted. But, the larger issue here, which is grassroots democracy and power to the people, the objectives of the Panchayati Raj Act, were not addressed.
Analysing the entire imbroglio that wrapped itself around the polls, there comes a question as to what’s more important: grassroots democracy or reservations for OBC? In the light of the decisions of the courts, it is clear that the election process cannot and should not be delayed for it is the Constitutional obligation of the government to hold elections on time. Did the Goa government feel and act otherwise in the current circumstances?
The first indication that there could be a change in date for the polls that had tentatively been fixed for June 4, came in late April when the Panchayat Minister said that due to ‘a slight delay owing to delimitation and reservation, the date will be pushed further’. There had been enough time for the State Election Commission to have completed this process on time, but for varied reasons, this did not happen.
Soon after, a judgement of the Supreme Court in a petition on holding panchayat polls in Madhya Pradesh, that had reiterated that all States strictly follow the triple test laid down for reservation of wards for other backward classes, was brought up. The triple test meant that the State government would have to appoint panels, collect empirical data for quantifying the extent and backwardness of every panchayat and ensure that the reservations quota does not exceed the 50 per cent ceiling. Latching on to this, the government went into a tizzy and postponement of panchayat elections became a major point of discussion as such a process would take months. Files moved back and forth between the government and the State Election Commission, between the government and the Advocate General, and, finally, the polls were postponed. When this was challenged in the High Court of Bombay at Goa, the bench quashed the order of the government and directed that the polls be held within 45 days. A revision petition in the Supreme Court of India did not help the government.
Ironically, on the very morning, a book on the government’s achievements of 100 days was being released, the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Bombay at Goa were rejecting panchayat-related petitions of the government – in the SC a challenge of a high court order and in the HC seeking reservations for OBCs. Could this embarrassment have been avoided?
Had the government not attempted to interpret the Supreme Court decision on following the triple test for OBC reservations to suit its own interests it could very definitely have been avoided. In 100 days during which its performance has seen some roller coaster moments, the handling of the panchayat polls exposed the government’s mishandling of the situation. All the government had to do was follow the process as laid down for the panchayat elections.
While mandating the triple test for reservations, the Supreme Court had clearly directed that the election process cannot be delayed and that it is the Constitutional obligation of the government to hold elections on time. The Supreme Court allowed States to go ahead with the election process as this is a Constitutional mandate. In the light of this, the adamant stand of the government and, very surprisingly also of the opposition Congress that went on record backing the postponement of panchayat polls was surprising.
Which brings us back to the earlier question: are reservations more important than local body elections? The Supreme Court has been clear that the poll process has to go on, so the government’s dilly-dallying on the dates was definitely not in conformity with this.
Looking at this from another angle, this delay could have provided the opportunity to bestow more powers to the village bodies, a demand that has for long been before the government and that has not been met. It is perhaps this that does not allow the panchayats to function as real democratic bodies of the grassroots.
In the past five years, except for the infrastructure of roads and hot mix, has there been any improvement in the quality of life in the villages? Panchayat bodies have become increasingly administrative in nature – issuing certificates and construction approvals – rarely going beyond this to bring a qualitative change in the village. In the light of what occurred in the past weeks, it is safe to surmise that had the law not so mandated, the government would have gladly postponed the polls, even indefinitely if it so could. The Goa Panchayati Raj Act exists. It has to be implemented and the grassroots bodies empowered, only then will power actually be in the hands of the people.