Amid pandemic, gram panchayat elections a tough call for Karnataka EC

It seems to be a catch-22-situation for the Karnataka State Election Commission as the ruling BJP and the combined Opposition (Congress and JD-S) are pulling it in different directions on holding elections to 6,025 gram panchayats (GPs), which form a key cog in the wheel of rural development, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tenure of rural local bodies, which play a role in providing jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and in supplying drinking water during the summer, is scheduled to end between June and August this year. The Election Commission admitted that its work related to the preparation of electoral rolls and reservation of seats as per the newly amended Karnataka Gram Swaraj and Panchayat Raj Act has been severely hit by the lockdown as the State government has directed its staff in taluks and districts to address grievances related to COVID-19.

Besides the COVID-19 work such as arranging trains/buses for migrants, supplying food to the poor, providing shelters to quarantine people, executing MGNREGA works, over 50% of the staff stayed home and did not come to office for nearly 60 days during the lockdown, t derailing the poll panel’s work.

With the poll panel not showing any signs of announcing a calendar of events for holding polls, a tug war has ensued between the Opposition parties — the Congress in particular — and the BJP. Congress leaders have submitted a petition to the commission seeking that the elections be held as per schedule. The Congress claims that the BJP government plans to gain entry into GPs by appointing its party workers as administrators through Deputy Commissioners, which is a blatant violation of the Constitution and the Karnataka Gram Swaraj and Panchayat Raj Act, 1993. The government is undermining the political process at the grassroot level, using the COVID-19 situation as an excuse, Congress leaders have claimed.

Political motives

The BJP, apparently, believes that putting off polls will enable it to tighten its hold on rural administration as GPs receive thousands of crores of rupees in funds from the Union and State governments. In fact, the government issued an order in March postponing elections to various cooperative banks/societies citing the spread of the virus.

The Congress, which has been submitting petition after petition to the government complaining about its lapses in handling the lockdown and about migrant sufferings, seems to believe that holding elections as scheduled will be advantageous to the party as anti-incumbency factor is expected to come into play. Party insiders say that the anger of the rural folk, particularly farmers, against the BJP government over its alleged failures in handling the lockdown is likely to work in favour of the Congress. Elections to GPs are apolitical and candidates cannot use party symbols, but political influences are clearly at play.

Knowing well that the rural poor and farmers have been generally backing the Congress, particularly in the present circumstances, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president-designate D.K. Shivakumar is keen on seeing the GP elections held on time. Mr. Shivakumar, who has been vocal in highlighting the government’s failures, believes that victory of a majority of candidates backed by the Congress will add another feather to his cap.

In the 2015 elections to GPs, Congress was one up, with nearly 34,000 party-backed candidates emerging victorious in 21 districts. The then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had attributed the victory to the various ‘Bhagya’ schemes of the government. The BJP then managed to gain only in five districts, while the JD(S) had the upper hand in three.

The State Election Commission has sought the views of Deputy Commissioners on the viability of holding elections to GPs now. The commission is likely to take a final call based on their input.

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