Getting firmly on with local elections

Dwarika Prasad Sharma
Two of the phrases that have contributed to the enduring success story of the Americans are “get on with it!” and “kick butt”. They signify a no-holds approach of moving on without waiting for ideal conditions. The movement itself will create a momentum to craft better circumstances, American achievers, or for that matter doers anywhere, believe.
The Centre and the Governor’s administration have been following this credo in a ramrod fashion with regard to the elections to civic bodies and panchayats , strengthening of these institutions, and thus fortifying democracy.
Over the last few days, announcements of steps to give more flesh and blood to local self-governance have been coming in cascades. The most significant is the greater empowerment of panchayats, both in administrative and financial devolution, by extending to the state the provisions of the 73rd Amendment of the National Constitution. Expectedly, benefits of the 74th Amendment, which concerns civic bodies, would also be extended to the state.
Governments at the Centre have been repeatedly asking the state to adopt these Amendments, but it has been taking ambiguous positions. An intention to do so was part of the Agenda of Alliance of the PDP-BJP coalition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, explaining why the BJP pulled out of the alliance, publically said that the (former) chief minister, among other things, was hindering the holding of local elections.
Chief Secretary BVR Subramanyam has been articulating and re-articulating the expressed or planned positions of the Governor and the Union Government to positively impact the fiddly situation in Kashmir. A major point of focus right now is facilitating local-body elections, urban and rural. The Union and the State Governments believe that these elections will stimulate a wave of outreach touching the lives of people down to the grass-roots, thus favourably influencing the situation.
Governor Satya Pal Malik has been advising the political parties to grab this opportunity for a wide outreach, to consolidate their own positions as well as to contribute to the peace process. Anyway, there are reports of rank-breaking within the NC and the PDP, with their members joining the elections as independents. A high-profile rebellion was that of NC spokesman Junaid Mattu, who declared that he would contest in Srinagar.
In a strong display of the getting-on-with-it posture, several of the planned steps that the Chief Secretary enumerated on September 25 were approved or given a go-ahead by the State Administrative Council and the Centre the very next day. Then on September 28 came Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement that 29 subjects would be transferred to panchayats in this state, like in other states, and that their financial powers would increase ten times.
No beating about the bush and seeking refuge in this, that or the other committee or a pow-wow to defer firm decision-taking, as has been the wont of “popular” Governments in the state. Once having decided to go ahead with the local elections, despite the wimping out of two major political parties, the administration has made unrelenting moves to strengthen the process. To allay anxieties about security of candidates, the poll staff, and the polling booths, the Chief Secretary has assured that additional 400 companies of Central police forces would be inducted. He has said that after the polls also, the elected reps would ensured security.
In order to blunt the “quit or die” threat issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen to policemen in general and Special Police Officers in particular, the Union home ministry has hiked the honorarium of the SPOs. Recently, two SPOs and a constable were kidnapped and killed by terrorists in their current blood ground of Shopian. The terrorists have uploaded several videos which purportedly show SPOs announcing their resignations. The state police have called these rumour-mongering and an attempt to demoralise a vital arm of the force which acts as local eyes and ears, apart from helping in targeted operations. Despite the videos being dismissed as false propaganda, there is this incident of an SPO in a legislator’s security detail decamping with seven AK 47 guns and a pistol, leading the police to suspect a conspiracy.
The SAC on September 26 took two important decisions to strengthen local self-governance. It sanctioned 177 posts of panchayat inspectors with the aim of promoting better implementation of development programmes of the 177 newly-created development blocs in the state.
It also gave approval to the draft Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (Amendment) Bill 2018. The Bill is aimed at substantively empowering the Development Councils of Leh and Kargil to exercise administrative and financial powers. The Amendment gives more powers to the LAHDCs to levy and collect local taxes and fees within their jurisdiction and deposit them in the Council Fund. It gives greater control to the councils over the functioning of the various departments and their staff in the respective districts. The smooth flow of finances into the Council Fund from the state budget and the Central schemes is proposed to further enrich it.
Local self-Government experts have pointed out that local bodies have chronically been shying away from levying taxes that, they reckon, would make them unpopular. So flow of funds from sources other than local taxation is considered a necessity. Panchayats all over the country were suffering from funds deprivation till the Amendments of 1992-93, that required the Centre to make dedicated budgetary allocations for them that the states would be unable to pinch.
Subramanyam had said on September 25 that Rs 4,335 crore would be devolved to rural and urban local bodies on conclusion of the polls. “This huge chunk of funds allocated to the state under the 14th Finance Commission award has been withheld as no elected local bodies are in place in the state,” he said, adding that Rs 3,029 crore is pending for panchayats and Rs 1,306 crore for urban bodies.
The Amendment approved by the SAC requires the panchayats to follow the directions of the Council. Misgivings had been expressed that empowered panchayats had the potential of undermining the authority of the LAHDCs. Leh Chief Executive Councillor Dorjay Mutup, however, told me on the phone that the doubts were unfounded, as the CEC is chairman of the Zilla Parishad as well. The Amendment has further obviated the eventuality.
The Leh PDP recently said that civic elections in Leh would create a body that would “undermine the authority of the LAHDC”. Congress leader Nawang Rigzin Jora dismissed it as “nonsense”. He said over the phone from Leh that the municipality would have jurisdiction only in Leh town, while the jurisdiction of the LAHDC encompassed the entire district. “There would be absolutely no conflict of interest,” he said. The approved Amendment would take care of that aspect as well.
The Amendment, when implemented, would make the LAHDCs among the most autonomous councils in the country, the Government spokesman said.
At his media conference on September 25, Subramanyam made some observations which, apart from the firm push given to the local-body poll process, should take more wind out of the sails of the NC and the PDP. He said that the Governor’s rule was not about taking a stand on Article 35-A, which would be left to an elected government to defend in the Supreme Court.
Mehbooba, who had not recommended dissolution of the Assembly and holding fresh elections because she feared facing the electorate at this point, soon started getting the nightmares that the BJP was into talks with her party’s rebels and others to whip up numbers to stake a claim to form a Government, and reduce her to a withered wallflower. It was also conjectured in her “loyal” circle that the Centre had sent over the BJP politician Governor to aid just that. The Governor had, however, right at the outset said that he had not come to the state to help form a Government, but to work toward establishing peace, for which he would even jump the protocol to reach out to the separatists. He said that he had friends across the parties in the state, and that would immensely help him promote normalcy.
The Governor has also been delivering some humorous googlies, like the observation that the local elections would record a better percentage than what Farooq could manage in the Lok Sabha by-election last year. Farooq’s party has, incidentally, been demanding dissolution of the state Assembly and holding of fresh elections, despite the 35-A hassle. Local-body elections are risky, but Assembly elections are about overarching power, and worth taking a risk for, isn’t it so, Doctor? Anyway, local-body empowerment can be rewound anytime from the Assembly floor, isn’t it again so, Doctor?
(The writer is a Senior Journalist)
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