Elections are here again. In the polling scheduled for October 23 and 25, Kerala’s voters will decide who should manage the affairs of the state’s local self-government institutions (LSGI) for the next five years.
LSGIs constitute the lowest levels of the administration. They have only limited powers. They cannot legislate. There is hardly any scope to raise revenues through taxation. But they have at their disposal grants allotted by the central and state governments.
The large number of posts at stake makes the LSGI elections the biggest undertaking of its kind. In the Lok Sabha elections, the state’s voters choose only 20 MPs. In the State Assembly elections they choose 140 MLAs. In this month’s LSGI elections they will choose more than 21,600 persons to run five city corporations, 59 municipalities, 14 district panchayats, 152 block panchayats and 978 gram panchayats.
A law enacted early this year raised the seats reserved for women in LSGIs from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. If the total number of seats in a body is an odd one, women will have one seat more than men. As a result, more than 11,200 seats will go to women. Since women can contest for general seats also, the number of women elected to LSGIs may exceed this number.
Half of all the LSGIs will have women at the helm. Where men are at the helm, there will be women in the No.2 slot. The top positions will be filled by drawing from the ranks of the elected members.
The entry of women in large numbers makes these elections quite unlike anything the state has witnessed so far. In recent years, fewer women have been elected to Parliament and the State Assembly than in the early years of Independence.
When 33 per cent reservation came into force, political parties experienced difficulty in finding candidates for the reserved seats since women have not been very active in the political sphere. They overcame the problem by drawing candidates from among family members of party leaders or members of affiliated women’s organisations.
This time the parties once again experienced difficulty as they had to find more women candidates than last time.
Unlike the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly, which are legislative bodies patterned after western parliamentary institutions, LSGIs are based on the Indian tradition of village panchayats (five-member councils). The system did not envisage separation of the elected representatives into treasury benches and opposition benches.
Respecting the essential difference between the western and indigenous models, for a long time the political parties stayed out of LSGI elections. Their members did contest LSGI elections but they did so without party labels.
During the past two decades, as the confrontation between the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the United Democratic Front led by the Congress, the main contenders for power in the state, became intense, both sides started putting up candidates on party basis in LSGI elections also.
The three-tier panchayat system now in vogue all over the country is the result of an initiative taken by the late Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister. He decided to strengthen the lower levels of administration after he found that middlemen gobbled up most of the funds earmarked for schemes meant for the weaker sections of the society.
In Kerala, the last LDF government took the concept of grassroots level democracy a step further by initiating steps for decentralisation of power and people’s participation in the planning and execution of development projects.
Since then people’s participation has fallen into bad days. Schemes are now drawn up by officials and executed by contractors. Corruption in the administration and favouritism in the distribution of benefits under welfare schemes are widespread.
A number of new players have entered the electoral arena this time and some of them pose a challenge to the ways of the established political forces. They include activist groups which have been pursuing various causes including protection of the environment.
Also among the new entrants are organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Dalit Human Rights Forum, and CPI-M dissidents, some of whom are erstwhile supporters of Chief Minister VS Achuthananadan.
Both the LDF and the UDF are treating the LSGI elections as a dress rehearsal for the Assembly elections which are due next year. The CPI-M has said the election will be a referendum on the performance of the present LDF government. These are postures aimed at keeping the contests in the familiar matrix of alliance politics.
If the new entrants are able to upset the traditional equations in the LSGI elections, the political scenario may well undergo a change before the Assembly elections.