With few exceptions, both urban and rural elections to the local bodies passed off peacefully in Himachal Pradesh a few weeks ago. Municipal ward councilors were elected in the urban centers. Rural areas went through a three-tier election- panchayat, block development councils, and Zila Parishad (district development councils). Thousands of candidates contested the poll, and for nearly two months, the state was gripped in this discourse.
These elections were devoid of party symbols. But, while competing for Zila Parishad, major political parties announced their official candidates. However, a large number of independent candidates won in these elections.
Two essential features require discussion and resolution for a healthy local body election in the future: the power of the ruling party and rampant use of money and resources.
BJP, the ruling party, utilized its state machinery to ensure elected members were those in favor of BJP.
Though the elections were non-partisan, the results became a party forum for both the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the ruling party in the state, and Congress. The entire state machinery was utilized to ensure that the elected members, significantly block development council members, and Zila Parishad either shifted to the ruling party or supported the official chairpersons of BJP. Such practice is against the background and the context in which these elections were fought.
The term ‘local’ in local body elections lost its relevance when elections were commanded from the power emanating at the center of the state. The fact that nearly 70 percent of the elected Zila Parishad in the state are not from the BJP, still the ruling party managed to win chairpersons in most districts, except Shimla. In Shimla, the three CPI(M) supported members chose to vote for the Congress.
Thus, it is pertinent for local bodies’ elections to hold on to party symbols to serve twin purposes. Firstly, horse-trading and intimidation of elected members will be reduced, and the mandate will be both for the person and the party that is being represented. Secondly, there will be continuity in performance. Once elected, the person will have a responsibility of performance in continuity even though she/he may opt-out from the next contest. There will be more onus on the elected representative.
The state election commission was utterly absent from its role of ensuring a free and fair election. They did not serve a single notice to any of the contesting candidates in the fray.
The unflinching use of money and dhams (community feast) was throughout the state. During this period, the spread of COVID was at its peak, showing ignorance towards major health pandemic.
The limit for spending by each candidate in the Zila Parishad is Rs 1 lakh; Rs 75,000 in the Municipal Council, and Rs 50,000 in a Nagar Panchayat. However, in these elections, these limits were torn apart. In some of the Zila Parishad wards, the money spent by a few candidates crossed Rs 1 crore, 100 times more than the limit. Likewise, for block development council members, the amount surpassed Rs 15 lakhs.
The two major problems with such an erroneous practice, if not stopped, for the future of local body election are:
Such obnoxious practices must break, and the people will have to build their alternative monitoring strategies and fix responsibility. The state apparatus comprising the state election commission is proving somewhat defunct.
One of the ways that come to mind, which I learned in a tribal district of Kinnaur, is community participation.
As in election, in Kinnaur villages, there was this blind race of ‘matching thy neighbor’ spending on marriages, keeping the individual’s capacity aside, and even taking loans. There are anecdotal stories that if a neighbor has sacrificed 20 goats, then one would sacrifice 30 in a wedding, and of course, the expenditure on booze will be commensurate to that. However, concerned citizens raised a bogey of alarm. They decided what shall be desired in a Kinnauri wedding in the village, and anyone exceeding that would be penalized from doing so. This has changed the atmosphere.
But will such an intervention help in the due diligence of holding the elections to provide an equitable field for all. This is a wish but which must be achieved for our own secure and better democratic environment.
*Tikender Panwar, Urban Climate Change Expert and Former Mayor of Shimla, Impact and Policy Research (IMPRI)