INDIRECT ELECTIONS IN PANCHAYATS: A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY?
Indirect election has been in vogue since time immemorial where the voters do not directly vote for a candidate but select someone who in turn will make the choice. In other words, citizens put the responsibility to elect a candidate in the hands of their representatives. In India, the President is appointed through indirect election. With the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, Panchayats were established to “enable them to function as units of self-government”. Provisions contained from Article 243 to Article 243(O) concern the Panchayats.
Article 243C(2) of the Constitution states “All the seats in a Panchayat shall be filled by persons chosen by direct election from territorial constituencies in the Panchayat area”. Furthermore, Article 243K allows the legislature to “make provision with respect to all matters relating to, or in connection with, elections to the Panchayats”. In pursuance of Article 243K, many states have launched schemes for promotion of Unanimous Election to Village Panchayat (UEVP). The object of UEVP is simple: creating positive environment for development of Panchayats in a cordial, harmonious way; reduce election expenses and ensure participation of all the members of a Gram in the process of self-government. UEVPs are promoted by granting monetary and non-monetary incentives to the villages opting for it and the quantum of incentive is usually based on the population of the village concerned. In Gujarat, a unanimous selection system in Panchayats is followed under the ‘Samras Yojana’, a scheme introduced by the State government, even though the Constitution does not spell out unanimous system of selection. In Karnataka, the members of the Panchayat are elected indirectly who in turn elect the Sarpanch. Inspired by these states, now Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have resorted to UEVP.
UEVP presents a picture of pro-democracy where the voters back a candidate unanimously even without election. This questions the validity of the UEVP schemes in various states. The very concept of ‘Samras Yojana’ means ‘selection’ of a candidate unanimously and runs counter to Article 243C(2). Another interesting feature of the Yojana is that since it is state government scheme, the State Election Commission’s (SEC) jurisdiction over it is amputated. Non-intervention of SEC allows the political leaders to hijack the Panchayati Raj.
Under the scheme, the eligible voters of the panchayat come together and form a consensus so that the nomination is filed by only one candidate. If this process is followed, everyone will be aware as to which person has selected whom to be the representative of the panchayat which violates the principle of secrecy of voting. Samras corrupts the mind of the voters by providing them monetary and non-monetary incentives and in the long run if a village continues to adopt the Yojana (quantum of incentives increases when adopted again), it will undermine the role of the voter, which is an indispensable ingredient of democracy.
Auction for the sale of seat of Sarpanch is another concern of the Yojana. The post of Sarpanch is sold to the highest bidder and once he is chosen, no other candidate is allowed to submit nomination and he is elected unanimously. In Andhra Pradesh, the SEC has a list of Gram Panchayats where the post of Sarpanch was sold to the highest bidder. This inclination of ‘money-cracy’ in Panchayats is a serious threat to free and fair election.
Poverty of the people and undeveloped character of villages constitute a major factor which increases the chance of corruption in elections. Persons having power can adopt the twofold carrot-and-stick strategy for mobilising political support. It comes in handy when a candidate wants to go for contested elections. When he does so, filing of nomination is by more than one person and then the Gram has to go for contested election and could not yield the fruits provided by the Scheme. Powerful person, first, try induce the candidate by offering some incentives and if the first method fails, they threaten him of the possibility of worsening the position of the individual. Furthermore, villages are considered to breeding grounds of caste and sex based discrimination and with schemes like these, the voices of these people will always be supressed by the powerful ones.
The Hunger Project, a charitable organization dedicated to sustainable end of world hunger, commented on Samras as “A scheme which counteracts the democratic values as consensus is arrived at without the participation of women and other marginalized groups of the village community… Providing incentives to have no elections is also a violation of the constitutionally mandated right to political participation… Moreover, Samaras villages discriminate against villages that opt for the electoral process for identifying their representatives, which is perfectly legal and does not violate any laws.”
When comparing election and selection method of Panchayats, it is prima facie clear that the election method is far better than the selection method. The option to the villagers to assess a candidate based on his merit and demerit is snatched away with the selection scheme. Further, even if a Gram wants to go for election, it turns a blind eye to it because of the incentives provided by the scheme. There is a need to develop some norms to regulate, structure and discipline government discretion to confer such benefits. The government or any of its agencies should not be allowed to act arbitrarily and confer benefits on whomsoever they want.
Navin Kumar Jaggi