Panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh have thrown up many curious phenomena.
Everyone involved with the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh seems to love it. Sons, brothers, sons-in-law of MLAs contesting for seats at the village, tehsil or district levels in vast numbers are happy because the vidhayak mahoday is campaigning on their behalf, making full use of the party machinery. Wives and daughters-in-law from ‘influential families' are delighted because their family's local clout virtually guarantees them a seat in the ‘reserved' category. Husbands, fathers and uncles-in-law, who normally keep their family women on a short leash and insist that they veil their faces, are canvassing for them happily and look forward to being the power behind the throne. At many places, posters only bear the name of the woman candidate as the wife or daughter-in-law. And, instead of her face it displays the known family face: that of a burly, mustachioed male.
Almost went unreported
Hindi newspapers are meanwhile gurgling with delight as advertising revenues have come pouring in for their upcountry editions from local candidates in the shape of full-page colour advertisements. And of course, the government functionaries who have been entrusted with the task of issuing caste and residence certificates to candidates at the district headquarters towns are the happiest of them all. No matter who wins or loses, they have already made a substantial killing on the eve of the festive season.
Pity, the mainstream national media remained obsessed with the Commonwealth Games and the goings-on in Karnataka through September and October. And the fact that in 71 districts of Uttar Pradesh an electorate of over 11 crore was getting ready to elect its panchayat representatives went almost unreported. This year the five-yearly election in India's most populous State has a record number of candidates contesting for a total of 7,60,557 panchayat seats. One-third of the seats in these elections (in 71 district panchayats, 2,622 district panchayat wards and 6,41,441 village panchayat wards), are reserved for women.
In the rural areas, direct elections to panchayat posts have meant the absence of a powerful opposition that could raise objections and stall questionable decisions. A gram pradhan, once installed, can look forward to five years of unchallenged authority and enormous spending power — leading to a considerable rise in his own fortunes. Recently, an MLA canvassing for candidates remarked in a public speech at Purwa tehsil on how five years as panchayat pradhan seem to transform lives, so much so that this time around he had difficulty locating their houses. “Gram pradhan ban dhe hee Laxmi meherban ho jatee hai (the goddess of wealth begins to smile on you as soon as you become the head of the village”), confessed one citizen.
Indeed, in rural India a gram pradhan today is both the controller and distributor of large sums of money allocated by the Centre for development projects: distribution of mid-day meals, building schools, supervising ration shops for those below the poverty line, handling muster rolls and supervising work done under the all-important Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) … Exacting a hefty commission for each work and allocation of lucrative contracts to a few favoured ones is no longer the exception but the norm.
Money, muscle power
No wonder, then, that the real cost of contesting for the post of a gram pradhan (there will be about 51,000 of them in Uttar Pradesh) should now be almost the same as contesting a Legislative Assembly election used to be. Money and muscle power have been on display everywhere this time, and very few of the well-heeled candidates seem to have kept within the mandatory limit of Rs. 75,000 in terms of electoral expenses. Local people will tell you that the usual distribution of khaini, gutkha, daru, murga (pouches of chewing tobacco, liquor and meat) is no longer adequate. Full-page advertisements in the local editions of language dailies, hiring of musclemen from cities, display of firearms and fleets of sports utility vehicles and dance and music performances by bar girls a la Bollywood are now essential to win friends and influence the young voter.
As the giant multi-crore-rupee helium balloon/aerostat rose over the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi and A.R. Rehman sang his ‘O Yaro, Ye India Bula Liya ...', the media in general began to revise their cynicism and look a little more optimistically at the infrastructure improvements the Games will leave behind in the national capital. But it has so far not paused to take note of a very different India that lay hiccupping in Uttar Pradesh villages during the last few weeks, with lanes turned into bars and the number of murders and brawls registering a huge growth. As candidates accompanied by armed guards were being christened Vikas Purush by ruling party MLAs canvassing for them, grand promises were made of bringing bijli, pani, sadak to villages. Some candidates are said to have hired portable generators and connected village huts to them for the period — so the voters could remember to vote for the netaji who lit up homes even before he got elected.
As the government gets ready to launch the ambitious PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) scheme inspired by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, it must be careful not to pour water into a sieve. National Advisory Council members Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze have rightly criticised the Government of India for allegedly ‘stone-walling' an independent social audit mechanism to check corruption in panchayats and bring accountability to the implementation of its ambitious scheme.
But here we need also to remember that the essence of the drama all political leaders from developing nations such as India have to live through, lies in a terrible resistance they must face when ushering in any major change in rural areas. Everything is in the way: centuries of caste system, a primitive farm economy, illiteracy, religious fanaticism, tribal loyalties rooted in caste and enshrined in medieval khap panchayats …
Progress can only come with great difficulty to rural India. And even as it trickles in, it will bring in unimagined contrasts, contradictions and conflicts. Nothing will be unambiguous and nothing will fit a formula. One only hopes our touchingly young and urbane leadership and their advisers realise this.
(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer.)