UP’s native polls and the distortions in decentralised governance

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Elections for district council president (zilla panchayat adkhyaksh or ZPA) in Uttar Pradesh (UP), being held on July 3, have been marked by the standard patterns of politics in the state. Council members are being wooed, with financial inducements, to swing their vote. They, or even their members of the family, are being harassed, or worse, getting abducted to verify they vote in a sure way. The difference between legitimate and unlawful means used to win these elections is practically non-existent.

What are the political economy reasons that have sustained this system?

First, you will need to understand the institutional set-up as the current morass flows from it. The panchayati raj system has three layers – village, block and district council. The urban clusters too are organised in a similar way and function under similar dynamics, but aren’t the focal point of this analysis. While the ward members at all three levels are directly elected, including the pradhan/ sarpanch, the block pramukh (BP) and ZPA are elected not directly, i.e., only council members vote. Political party symbols aren’t used throughout native body elections in UP.

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The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment instituted provisions of reservations for lower castes and women. In UP, half the seats at all levels are in the open category, in which anyone can contest. Then again, each and every category of reservation has a 33% quota for women. The position nomenclatures, election rules including party symbol, and reservation proportions vary widely across states. As an example, some states have a reservation for Muslims, and in some other states, women reservation in native body elections is 50%.

Second, oblique elections of district and block council presidents have created a system in which large numbers get elected unopposed and they mostly belong to the candidates supported by the ruling party in the state. In 2021, 16 of 74 district council presidents (ZPAs) have been elected unopposed and, of this, only one (Etawah) belongs to the Samajwadi Party (SP). In 2015, 38 ZPAs were elected unopposed and the SP in the end won 60 of 74 ZPA seats. Not surprisingly, one-third of 820 block pramukhs in 2015 were also elected unopposed. The proportions were similar throughout the 2010 panchayat elections when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) used to be in power at the state level.

Third, the sheer money and muscle power deployed throughout these elections is phenomenal. Throughout my doctoral dissertation fieldwork in 2015 (and telephone conversations throughout this round), the expenditure incurred by successful candidates ranged from ₹5-10 crore for a ZPA seat and ₹1-3 crore for a BP seat. In comparative terms, a ZPA candidate steadily spends more than a Lok Sabha election candidate, and a BP more than a legislative meeting candidate. The expenditure used to be in large part driven by the district council annual budget (propionate rent-seeking possibilities) and the amount the competitor used to be offering to council members. In highly opaque candidate nomination systems, a ZPA and a BP develop into claimant to party nominations for the Lok Sabha and meeting elections respectively.

Fourth, the main contestants for the council presidency are mostly relatives of sitting members of Parliament, members of legislative meeting, and ministers, and from the ruling party in the state. It isn’t surprising then that the state machinery is deployed to its fullest and the ruling party wins the maximum number of presidency seats. In reality, as soon as a change in the ruling regime in the state capital takes place, successful no-confidence motions are brought against many sitting ZPAs and BPs.

Inside months of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in 2017, the presidents in one in each four district and block council got changed. As an example, late the wife of Vinod Singh (a minister in Akhilesh Yadav’s cabinet) used to be elected president of the Gonda district council in 2015 and his two nephews became block pramukhs. With the change of guard in 2017, they resigned from their post and the wife of BJP MP Brajbhusan Singh used to be elected ZPA and his two relatives became block pramukhs. The analysis suggests that similar proportions of leadership positions changed when BSP and SP were elected in 2007 and 2012 respectively.

Fifth, in many cases, particularly when the seat gets reserved for a caste which isn’t the same as a senior politician interested in the position, the politicians in question get their loyalists or employees elected to these posts. While it helps to share power with politically ambitious members of the family, there’s a deeper political economy reason that helps in the native entrenchment of political power. Throughout my fieldwork, I found that most mid-level politicians in rural India own businesses such as brick kilns, petrol pumps, transport, sand mining among other activities. In a similar way, a large portion of district council budgets gets spent on construction-related activities (building or repair of streets, government offices, schools, bridges, among others). Connect the two dots — the bid is issued and awarded to the machine owned by the same network.

It is a power-beget-power story in rural India. A decentralised governance system has indeed opened up many spaces and brought marginalised groups into power hierarchies, yet it’s also fitting an enabler of political entrenchment. It is puzzling that India, which prides itself in keeping a high standard of conducting elections throughout national and state polls, has not seriously debated the electoral process for rural native bodies. India should think of a new set of reforms to actually realise the revolutionary potential of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment.

Rahul Verma is Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.

The views expressed are personal

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