Dirty tales from UP polls

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UP-Polls

Husband kills elected candidate after wife loses polls’, ‘Nephew murders uncle for brother’s defeat in polls’, ‘Candidate shot dead’, ‘Candidate’s nephew shot dead’, ‘Supporter shot dead after candidate loses election’ — these are not randomly curated headlines but incidents that followed on the heels of the Panchayat and local body polls held in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

With the poll results out, incidents of violence in the state only seemed to spiral. The gangrape of the daughter of an elected candidate in Mirzapur district shook the hinterland. Unable to bear the humiliation that persisted, the girl, a minor, resorted to suicide. Disturbingly, since the results were announced, 24 people have been killed and 50 injured in separate incidents of violence.

The rise in violence gives rise to a plausible question: Is the Gandhian concept of decentralised power being diluted? “I would give the lowest rating to UP for its commitment to the Panchayati Raj,” says George Mathew, Chairman of the New Delhi headquartered Institute of Social Sciences, a think tank on democratic decentralisation.

Political analyst, Badri Narayan, who is based in Lucknow agrees saying that the very intention of Panchayati Raj to empower the weak has been turned on its head in the state. “Incidents like these [violence after Panchayat polls] only proves that the powerful and elite in rural areas have taken hold of the political process, destroying the very idea of decentralisation of power,” says Narayan.

“A noticeable growth in violence and corruption has been registered with increasing spread of democracy in our society,” he says.

Much in line with Assembly and parliamentary elections, panchayat elections too have become a big budget affair. This in turn may have spurred instances of crime and corruption.

According to a source, despite the limit of expenditure in the panchayat elections being set as Rs 75,000, there were multiple instances where amounts between Rs 5-10 lakh were spent by candidates. However, Dinesh Kumar Tiwari, Assistant District Election Officer of Allahabad tells Tehelka that no complaints regarding violations in expenditure were received.

The primary objective of the Panchayati Raj was to extend development to the farthest corners of India. Mahatma Gandhi, the proponent of the idea, had said, “True democracy cannot be worked by twenty men sitting at the Centre. It has to be worked from below; by the people of every village… The centre of power now is in New Delhi, or in Calcutta or Bombay, or in the big cities. I would have it distributed among the seven hundred thousand villages of India.”

With this as the aim, the Panchayati Raj grants significant financial powers to the gram panchayat, the first unit of governance in every village. The 73rd amendment of the Constitution assigns more responsibilities to villages under the decentralised Panchayati Raj. These include implementation of various schemes – the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (the compulsory education scheme for children), mid-day meals, pension scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and other services such as ensuring cleanliness, hand pump maintenance, distribution of student scholarships and ration cards.

The pradhan (head of the village) is also responsible for the repair of roads and drains. The tasks carried out under MNREGA also fall under the pradhan’s jurisdiction. For the distribution of a significant portion of its resources, the government depends on the panchayat pradhans. Even the smallest gram sabha receives over Rs 20 lakh in five years as government fund. The fund is Rs 50 lakh for larger gram sabhas. The amount is directly credited to the village pradhan’s account. This creates an opportunity for corruption and is the primary reason why local body elections have become fraught with crime and violence.

“The growing competition to grab power on the might of money has led to widespread violence. The idea of power decentralisation has been hijacked with acts such as murder, kidnapping, threats and booth capturing,” says Narayan. “If the contesting candidates have such vile monetary interest, how can they be expected to serve the people?”

A look at the economic condition of the winning candidates clears the air further. According to the UP Election Commission, 78 percent of newly elected pradhans are millionaires having movable or fixed assets worth at least half a million. What is even worse is the acceptance of acts of violence by the society. No protests were made, no complaints filed while candidates were given a free hand to do as they pleased — kill, rape and humiliate. “There is no Panchayati Raj in UP — only Sarpanch Raj,” Mani Shankar Aiyar, Member of Parliament and former Panchayati Raj Minister tells Tehelka.

What else could be the reason behind the growing violence? “More than the money it is prestige and status that is the reason for such actions,” says Uday Veer Singh Yadav, Director Panchayati Raj Department, UP.