No-confidence motion passed against Mandrem Sarpanch. This is a headline that doesn't surprise anyone in Goa because throughout the five-year term of a panchayat body, sarpanchas and their deputies are voted out and voted in, sometimes to be voted out. But this particular incident requires some discussion.
Panchayat elections were held on August 10, the results were declared on August 12. Sarpanchas and deputy sarpanchas were elected on August 22. The sarpanch of Mandrem, elected on August 22, was voted out a week later on August 29. The notice of no confidence was given a day after he had been elected. The new sarpanch, as has been reported in the media, is aligned with the local MLA, signifying that it was the MLA who now held sway in the panchayat.
This is not the first time that a sarpanch has had a notice of no-confidence moved against him within 24 hours of taking office. There was a similar incident in June 2017, when on June 19 the elected panchas of the Se-Old Goa panchayat voted for a sarpanch but 24 hours later five of the nine members of the panchayat body had moved a no-confidence motion against the sarpanch they had elected a day earlier.
Goa is known for its MLAs switching sides, but what does this say about grassroots democracy? Is it free of political interference or is it being politically manipulated? Whether it be at the time of elections or during the entire term, politics plays a major role in the grassroots bodies and it is not restricted to the village panchayats.
In April 2021, after the elections to the municipal councils, the newly elected councillors of the Curchorem-Cacora Municipal Council, had, within minutes of voting for a chairperson by eight votes to seven, given a notice of no-confidence that was signed by nine of the councillors. It happened even before the chairperson who was elected had settled down firmly in the new chair he had been voted to occupy.
If the elections to the local governing body are not held on party lines, why do political parties and MLAs claim that their panels have won? The politics of one-upmanship at the grassroots level does not bring any positives to the village or to the town. These are power struggles that do not benefit the people and have to be stopped.
There exists a provision to move a motion of no confidence against a sarpanch or the president of a municipal council and replace the person occupying the post. But it should under no circumstance be misused for political motives. Any change in the head of a grassroots democratic body has to be for very justifiable reasons – the lack of performance perhaps – any reason that is in public interest and not for the private interests of the local politician.
A person can be voted out if his or her performance as head of the body falls below expectation. For that, the person heading the body should be given the opportunity to work. Surely a panchayat would not want an incompetent person heading the body. There can also be health reasons which may force a change of sarpanch.
It is perhaps time to amend the rules so that the head of local government bodies are actually given a chance to perform before they are voted out. One amendment that could restrict the number of no-confidence motions would be making it mandatory that at least three-fourths of the panchas sign such a notice. Some States have brought in amendments to rein in the changes that happen in these bodies. Goa could look at some of these, in particular Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
It is not just at the start of a term that a sarpanch is voted out, but there are almost constant changes in chairpersons and sarpanchas that lead to instability in the local bodies. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution that envisaged giving power to the people did not expect this sort of politicking at the grassroots. Local governing bodies were never meant to be political playgrounds of the MLAs and the political parties. They were meant to be institutions that would decide the future and the development of the towns and villages. And it is this that has to be safeguarded.
It is clear that stability will help the development of a village or a town more than constant changes in the head of the local bodies. An idea propagated by one will at times not be continued by the other if there is politics being played at these bodies.
The grassroots bodies have to be strengthened by allowing those elected to perform and not weakened by political interference by ejecting democratically elected heads of the bodies. The musical chairs that get played out in the panchayats and the municipal councils are not of any benefit to the people who are the main stakeholders in the villages and towns. Is it their interests that should be foremost and not that of the elected politicians? It is only when this realisation seeps in that the village bodies will be free from the political fetters.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author)