Manufacturing unanimity

Giving cash grants to gram panchayats electing sarpanchs unanimously is antithetical to democracy

February 28, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Medak, Telangana, 25/01/2019: Tribals after casting their votes during second phase of Gram Panchayat Elections at Narayankhed in Sangareddy   District on January 25, 2019.
Photo: Mohd Arif / The Hindu (Stringer)

Medak, Telangana, 25/01/2019: Tribals after casting their votes during second phase of Gram Panchayat Elections at Narayankhed in Sangareddy District on January 25, 2019. Photo: Mohd Arif / The Hindu (Stringer)

Using cash or other favours as an inducement to garner votes in any election, whether to Parliament, Assembly, or the gram panchayat, is a punishable offence in India. The logic is that voters must exercise their choice based on free will and the choice they make should be an informed one using a secret ballot. That is a cornerstone of democracy. While inducements of every sort are endemic during elections, what is to be done when the state itself is the inducer?

Consider this. In the run-up to the Panchayat elections in Telangana, the government led by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) encouraged ‘unanimous elections’. The carrot offered to those gram panchayats that elect their sarpanchs unanimously was a cash grant of ₹10 lakh for those with a population less than 15,000 and ₹25 lakh for those with a population more than 15,000. This had an unexpected fallout: large-scale ‘auctions’, which of course are illegal, were held in many gram panchayats across the State. The State Election Commission was seized of the matter when civil society groups cried foul.

This is not something new. It has a precedent. In fact, Andhra Pradesh has been encouraging unanimous elections for gram panchayats. A Congress-led united Andhra Pradesh in November 2008 issued a government order announcing ₹5 lakh for those gram panchayats with a population less than 15,000 and ₹10 lakh for those with a population more than 15,000, that elect their sarpanchs unanimously. This was revised in August 2013 to ₹7 lakh and ₹20 lakh, respectively. The TRS-led government only made an inflation-adjusted increase.

United Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana are not the only ones encouraging this practice. In Gujarat, there was a scheme which began in 1992 that provided incentives for unanimous elections. It was revised and named Samaras-Yojana. States including Haryana and Punjab took a leaf out of the Andhra Pradesh strategy book, and in 2008 launched cash grants for unanimous election schemes. There was an echo in Himachal Pradesh too. There was criticism of this democracy-subverting practice, but nothing seems to have come out it.

What was purportedly meant to save precious resources and avoid rancour among villagers is turning out to be something akin to manufactured unanimity, or manufactured consent, under duress or political pressure. How is this illegal practice being encouraged by States despite posing a threat to democracy?

The writer is a Hyderabad-based Editorial Consultant with The Hindu

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