In each poll, nominated candidates get elected “unopposed”

“I'm yet to have an inked index finger for a panchayat election,” says a Dalit woman in her thirties, outside her rain-washed hutment in Karupampulam, a village near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district.

Karupampulam panchayat, barely10 kilometres from the site of Rajaji's famous salt march, couldn't be further from Gandhiji's vision of rural democracy: elections for rural panchayat bodies are never held because each time, the nominated candidates get elected “unopposed”. The last three elections since the grant of constitutional sanctity for Panchayati Raj were uncontested in Karupampulam. All the candidates won unopposed and have been declared ‘elected' yet again in 2011.

This week, even as neighbouring areas are in the thick of political campaigning, Karupampulam bristles with a disconcerting silence. The village, in fact, has not seen elections since the 1960s. A semblance of an election was snuffed when a CPI candidate who had filed his nomination for the rural panchayat chair was pressured to withdraw in 1964. The only contested local election ever witnessed here was in 1986, when the Communist candidate lost by a bare margin.

Karupampulam, steeped in a pre-Independence village economy based on the pannai system (mirasdarship), is yet to reconcile to democratic political mores. Politics here continues to be defined and determined by a staunch legacy of this bygone feudal system, where the ‘village powerful' decide the nominees.

Of the local bodies here, the reserved offices of the panchayat president and that of the panchayat councillor have been filled unopposed, and eight of the nine wards have been declared filled with unopposed candidates. Significantly, most of these candidates were incumbents with a baggage of non-performance and the target of people's discontent.

Two candidates were ‘asked' to withdraw their nominations for the post of president. “I was running till October 3, the last date for withdrawal of nominations, and was finally hounded out of the contest,” one of the two persons who had filed and earlier withdrew from the contest said.

The president-elect now had filed and withdrawn his nominations in 2006, and his ‘unanimous' nomination this time was a compromise, says a source.

For now, the only election that will be seen here this week shall be for Ward 1, where, for the first time, an independent candidate has filed his nomination. This single contest in just one of the nine wards has generated an unspelt fear among the villagers.

Even as the people of Karupampulam resign themselves to their effective disenfranchisement, the lone braveheart has petitioned the District Collector seeking declaration of their booth as ‘sensitive'. My aim is not to fight anybody, but to help create a culture of democratic contest, rather than this mirage of ‘unanimous election of puppet nominees',” he says. When contacted by The Hindu, Collector T.Munusamy gave an assurance that the booth will be declared as sensitive.

Paradoxically, the booth level officer was seen sifting through voter slips outside the house of the Dalit woman, just where the concrete road ends and the muddy slush that leads into the Dalit colony begins. For her, the voter slip was a totem for the grassroots democracy that was promised years ago but never delivered. “I will collect my slip though I cannot use it to elect a candidate of my choice. I also wish that somebody had the courage to contest against the ‘nominated' candidates, who may give us a better road.”