Manas Dasgupta

`Revenue officers are openly suggesting the names of BJP sympathisers for unanimous choices'

GANDHINAGAR: With elections announced for 10,000 village panchayats in Gujarat, Opposition parties and a number of voluntary organisations are up in arms against the Narendra Modi government's alleged move to install BJP supporters as panchayat presidents in the name of "samras" (unanimity).

While the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Arjun Modhvadia, alleged misuse of the official machinery to "lure or force" intending contestants to withdraw in favour of the "pro-BJP" candidates, the Panchayat Elections Vigilance Committee, formed by over 70 non-government organisations , said it was exploring various ways, including seeking legal remedy, to prevent the government from "denying the basic democratic rights to the people."

The "samras" idea was mooted by the Chief Minister during the last panchayat elections in December, 2001, to avoid what he claimed groupism and disunity among the villagers caused by acrimonious contests. Though the village panchayat elections had never been contested in Gujarat on political party symbols, the elections had invariably divided the villages on political lines.

The Modi Gvernment declared an additional government grant of Rs 60,000 if villagers achieved "Samras" and unanimously selected one name for sarpanch. For the December 10 elections, for which nominations began on Wednesday, the government increased the grant to Rs. 1 one lakh and an additional Rs 50,000 to the existing "samras" villages if they achieved by unanimity for the second time. In the last elections 3,934 villages emerged as "samras" villages.

The vice-president of the Mahila Swarajya Abhiyan and one of the conveners of the vigilance committee, Persis Ginwala, alleged that the village and taluka revenue officers were moving from village to village to discourage people from contesting and openly suggesting the names of BJP sympathisers to be accepted as the unanimous choice. In a number of cases, the reluctant villagers had been threatened with penal actions, besides being denied the special government grants if they went ahead with contesting elections.

"The poor and illiterate villagers are often forced to accept the recommendations of the mamlatdars (taluk revenue officers) and withdraw from contest," alleged Kantaben of the Mouchha village in Prantij taluka of Sabarkantha district.

Ms. Ginwala pointed out that even after the model code of conduct came into force on November 15 , the government officers were going round the villages threatening people with penal action if they refused to fall in line. Several women representatives of the Abhiyan coming from various villages alleged that on the first day of filling nominations on Wednesday, the government officials functioning as the returning officers had been refusing to accept the nomination forms.

The "samras" move, besides denying the basic democratic rights of the people, was also causing immense harm to the development of the villages. Ms. Ginwala claimed that the people "imposed" as sarpanchs through the "samras" move did not feel answerable to the people and were unwilling to take up their problems.

Instead of avoiding groupism, the "samras" was causing more bad blood among the villagers, she claimed.

The worst impact of the "samras" move, she claimed, was encouraging corruption right at the grass-root level.

No account had been provided for the special grants given to the "samras" villages last time nor was there any visible improvement seen in the villages which received the special grants last time.

The committee representatives had called on the State Election Commission responsible for conducting free and fair elections to the village panchayats. But it expressed its inability to interfere in the matter as the "samras" was a State government scheme over which the Election Commission had no jurisdiction.