A Stillborn Initiative

Panchayats were touted to be a vaunted zenith of a democratic initiative. While the first of the three tiers of Panchayat election is still fighting a battle for recognition and empowerment, the second tier has been frozen well before it would take off, R S GULL reports.

A view of Sarpanch protest-Photo:Bilal Bahadur.

A view of Sarpanch protest-Photo:Bilal Bahadur.

As the lawmakers from Panthers Party and BJP protested against doing away with the reservations in the forthcoming block development council (BDC) polls scheduled for November 7, it triggered a ruckus. Though Speaker M Akbar Lone encouraged lawmakers to stick to the listed business, nobody could listen anything in the ensuing pandemonium. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was keenly watching how the house was being stalled. As he ran out of patience, he intervened. His statement was precise: As for as provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments are concerned, the government will consider adopting better features in the state law. But the BDC polls stand announced and nobody sought any reservation when we initiated the exercise. There is no chance of stopping the election now, he added to a table-thumping by treasury benches.

With the brief assembly session over, the theatre shifts to the cabinet room of the civil secretariat. The brief meeting decided withdrawing the notification that had set the ball rolling for elections to the 144 BDCs, the second tier of the Panchayat Raj System (PRS). The decision followed a meeting between Omar, his two ministers and Congress delegation led by PCC Chief Prof Saif ud Din Soz last Sunday in which he was told in clear terms that he should get ready to contest the BDC polls without Congress if the party’s concerns are not accommodated.  Given the pressures that Congress had built, Omar agreed almost instantly. Even at the last moment when the ‘emergency’ cabinet was called, Congress ministers sought assurances on the demands as a precondition to their participation in the meeting!

Though Congress has remained coalition government’s principle player for all these years, cancellation of BDC polls is apparently Congress’s first major victory that lacked the support of 10 Janpath. In fact, Congress’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, had skipped putting his weight behind his party’s campaign but it failed to create an impact as Ghulam Nabi Azad openly sought amendments in the PRS act.

Almost everybody supported the idea of improving the PRS law. But nobody led any campaign for cancellation of the BDC polls. If at all it is a victory, Congress is the sole winner. But it has triggered a major debate. PDP says Omar has lowered the prestige of the throne he occupies. Explains a lawmaker: “Anybody running a coalition should either not take solo decisions or if he takes, he should stick to his guns.”  It does explain, as Communist leader Yusuf Tarigami stated, the gulf that exists within the coalition partners.

But the major issue that the decision conveys, as independent lawmaker Engineer Rashid put it, is the surrender of the NC before the Congress party. This could have been avoided easily as everybody understands the “compulsions of the coalition”. This decision, almost every party says, should have come from the assembly rather than the cabinet. “Had it come from the assembly, it would not have been as embarrassing as it sounds after the emergency cabinet decided it,” said an opposition lawmaker.

Panchayats are rooted in history of J&K. During the pre-partition era, even the autocrat Hari Singh promulgated the system in 1935. A year later, his government set up the Department of Panchayats and Rural Development to oversee the new grassoot level governance that had taken over the exploitative mechanisms. In 1941, history books suggest, the Maharaja amended the system and widened the list of functions and services the village Panchayats delivered.

Post-partition, the emergency government of J&K picked up the threads and adopted the law in 1951 that envisaged voice vote for choosing the grassroot level ‘leaders’. The law was replaced by another act in 1958.

However, the law that governs the PRS now was enacted in 1989. The 73rd amendment to the Indian constitution, which is making news and controversies for some time in J&K, was enacted in 1993, three years after the J&K had its own law. Rules for the law were drafted in 1996 because J&K was remotely ruled by Delhi between 1990 and 1996. In January 2001, eight-phase elections were held after being canceled thrice for security reasons. The exercise was bloody and scandalous. Individuals who had gone to perform Hajj were shocked that they were nominated in absentia and elected

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