Let the grassroots breathe

One of the first decisions of the newly elected Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan has been to scrap the minimum educational qualification criteria for candidates contesting local body elections. This reverses the amendments introduced by the previous government of the BJP in 2015 which required candidates contesting the zila parishad and panchayat samiti elections to have passed Class 10 and those contesting sarpanch elections to have passed Class 8. Further, it disallowed those without functional toilets in their home to contest. Following this, Haryana also introduced similar restrictions for contesting local body elections.

The decisions by the Rajasthan and Haryana governments were widely criticised and also challenged in the courts. However, in December 2015, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Rajbala v. State of Haryana upheld the validity of the amendments to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act. In a contentious judgment authored by Justice J. Chelameswar, the court held that prescription of educational qualification was justifiable for better administration and did not violate the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution. The latest decision of the Gehlot government has once again revived the debate on the fairness of having such restrictions.

Prescribing educational qualifications for contesting elections is problematic in multiple ways. Fundamentally, it unduly restricts a citizen’s right to contest elections and thereby challenges the basic premise of a republican democracy. Denying the right to contest effectively restricts the right of a citizen to vote for a candidate of her choice since more than half the population is restricted from contesting. Further, it disproportionately disenfranchises the more marginal sections of society: women, Dalits and poor. In a country like India with unequal access to education, it is cruel to blame citizens for the failure of the state to fulfil its constitutional obligations. The decision by the Gehlot government is hence a necessary corrective to an unjust rule.

Rationale for restrictions

Beyond the correctness of these decisions, it is also important to look at the underlying rationale for introducing educational qualifications specifically for local government elections. After all, such restrictions do not exist for those contesting parliamentary or Assembly elections. In fact, in the present Lok Sabha, 13% of MPs are under-matriculates, a share higher than those of women MPs.

These restrictions reveal that State governments and courts do not value local governments for their representative character. In Rajbala, the court held that prescription of educational qualification is relevant for “better administration of the panchayats”. On the one hand, this is based on an ill-informed assumption that those with formal education will be better in running panchayats. On the other, it reveals that State governments and courts place a premium on administration over representation in case of local governments.

This approach goes against the very objective of the 73rd and 74th Amendments that sought to make panchayats and municipalities representative institutions with adequate representation from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. Though local governments now have a definite space within India’s constitutional structure, they are still seen as administrative vessels for implementing programmes of the Central and State governments. The disqualification of candidates who don’t have toilets in their home or defecate in open is clearly an example where the implementation of a Central programme like the Swachh Bharat Mission gets precedence over the need for representative government.

Denying local democracy

The undermining of local governments as representative institutions does not take place solely through the introduction of restrictions for contesting elections. Often it takes a more brazen form: not holding elections to local governments. Over the years, many State governments have sought to defang local governments by simply delaying elections on various grounds. Elections to panchayats and municipalities in Tamil Nadu have not been held since 2011. In Visakhapatnam, elections to its Municipal Corporation were last held in 2007. These local governments now function as bureaucratic machines without an elected council to hold them accountable.

The continual delay in elections goes against the purpose of the 73rd and 74th Amendments which listed the “absence of regular elections” and “prolonged supersessions” as stated reasons behind their introduction. These amendments also mandated the creation of a State Election Commission (SEC) in each State for the preparation of electoral rolls and the conduct of elections to panchayats and municipalities. However, in most States, tasks like delimitation of seats are still done by the State government instead of the SEC. It is often under the guise of delimitation of seats that local government elections are delayed, especially when the party in power fears losses.

India prides itself as a robust democracy, at least in the procedural sense, with regular elections and smooth transfer of power. However, the absence of elected councils in some local governments punches holes in this claim. The lack of alarm caused by the denial of local democracy reveals our collective bias regarding the place of local governments. Delaying elections and adding restrictions to contest prevent local governments from becoming truly representative institutions.

Mathew Idiculla is a research consultant with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 2:58:00 AM |

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