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Mainstream, VOL L, No 30, July 14, 2012

Odisha: Panchayat Election Results and their Meaning for the Assembly Poll

Sunday 15 July 2012, by Bidyut Mohanty

This article reached us quite sometime ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons.

A State, known for having the highest proportion of the poor in the country and a large number of districts under Maoist influence and where many movements are going on against mega-mining projects, has just completed the panchayat elections relatively peacefully. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), under the leadership of Naveen Patnaik, has been ruling Odisha for the last twelve years: it has once again established its dominance at the village level even more firmly than before. The party has managed to do that in spite of the violence against women, increasing female foeticide and kidnapping of political leaders etc. This has been possible because of the factionalism of the other political parties and by depicting the clean image of the Chief Minister. The management of the media also helped a great deal to give a positive image of the ruling party.

In the month of February, Odisha conducted its panchayat elections spread over five phases. Over 2.4 crore voters elected 1,00,841 leaders as sarpanches, block samiti nominees, ward members, and zilla parishad members. These leaders consist of 87,528 ward members and 6228 sarpanches at the panchayat level, 6231 nominees at the panchayat samiti level and 854 at the zilla parishad(ZP) level.1 By the end of February, the elections were over and some results were out. The most important point to note is that the ruling party, namely, the BJD won a thumping majority at the ZP level decimating the Congress and BJP completely. The Congress has been reduced to a poor second and BJP a distant third.

In spite of having various corruption charges in utilisation of the developmental funds for such projects as the Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan (SSA), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS), mining scam, mid-day meal etc., the BJD could manage to win two-third seats at the ZP level. The ruling party could achieve such success mainly by creating and maintaining a pro-people and clean image of the government. Its media management, swift action taken by the Chief Minister against Ministers blamed for corruption or accused of other serious charges helped the image of the Chief Minister. Further, the winning trend also reveals the organisational weakness of the Congress party as well as that of the BJP. Last but not the least, the BJD took the election seriously so much so that none other than the Chief Minister himself campaigned in the elections. The massive majority of the BJD in this election has much bearing on the forthcoming Assembly and Parliament elections scheduled for 2014.

Unique Features of this Election

THIS election saw an overwhelming turnout of the voters with as high as 82 per cent in certain districts particularly in the final phase of the election.2 On an average about 69.4 per cent voters came to cast their votes during the entire election. As per the Election Commissioner of Odisha,3 re-polling was to take place only at twelve per cent of the total booths which was much less than in the previous elections. Again, for the first time, Maoists too in a way took part in the panchayat elections in two tribal dominated districts in western Odisha and won unopposed. Interestingly, earlier they had given a call to boycott the elections in eight districts, including Malkangiri, Kandhamal, Koraput, Nuapada and Nayagargh. But in these instances they put up candidates and ensured that no one else contested in those seats. Hence in some places they could win easily. Thus in the recent elections Maoists have won in 30 blocks. About 25,000 members and 32 sarpanches have been elected unopposed in those blocks. This phenomenon has given headache not only to the State but also to the Central Government, since this has serious implications for the use of develop-mental funds which are at the disposal of the panchayats of the backward districts under various schemes like the MGNREGS, Backward Region Development Fund etc.4 Thus funds coming under different heads to those panchayats may be used for purposes other than what they are meant for. At the same time, it may be noted that the BJD has managed to do better in Malkan-giri and Koraput—the two most seriously Maoist affected districts in the State—than previously.5 But due to the fact that Maoists have adopted the electoral way to participate in the election, the leaders might spend the development funds in a more meaningful way. The Union Minister for Panchayats, incidentally, suggested to the State Government that it should stop all the develop-ment funds to those panchayats. But the State Assembly rejected the suggestion. In addition, it is interesting to note that the BJD members had made an agreement with those leaders who got elected in panchayats to support them for the presidentship of the Zilla parishad. It was agreed that one Maoist leader will be made the vice-president. However, this was not honoured later on. Hence the saga of the abduction of Jhina Hikaka, the local MLA. On the other hand, all the movement candidates contesting for panchayats in the POSCO area of Jagatsinghpur, lost miserably, though the election was held peacefully.6 However, the election for Dhinkia panchayat, the epi-centre of the agitation, has been deferred by the Election Commissioner.

Another interesting feature of the recent poll is that the Jhodia community of Koraput District boycotted the polls on the demand that they should be declared as a Scheduled Tribe. Since they are currently listed as OBC, their land is easily taken over by the upper castes. Hence in Kashipur Block, nobody had filed nomination and no election was held in three zones of the tribal block.7 The villagers also boycotted the panchayat election in other districts such as Balasore and Mayurbhanja to demand access to basic services.8 In other words, villagers are taking the panchayat election more seriously.

Another notable feature of this election was that out of a total of 3989 candidates who were elected unopposed in Ganjam district as many as 2115 were women. Among them there were 2014 ward members, 49 sarpanches, 51 nominees and just one zilla parishad member.9

Lastly, this was the first time that the fifty per cent reservation for women was put into force along with much publicity about the imple-mentation of several women-related schemes. This led to a large turnout of women voters to the advantage of Naveen Patnaik.

Manifestos of the Political Parties for the Panchayat Election

THIS time, both the Congress party as well as BJD prepared manifestos which is rarely done in case of panchayat elections. The BJD focused on the developmental issues such as the success of various schemes for mother and child, bicycle for the girl child etc. The scheme meant for the women and girl child is also known as ‘Mamata’, which is the replica of the central scheme of Janani Surakshya Yojana (JSY). The success of other schemes such as owning land title for homestead land particularly for single women, cycles for the girls etc. were also highlighted. A TV channel aired the Mamata programme as a runaway success. Under this scheme, conditions for getting Rs 5000 are that the pregnant and lactating women have to register themselves at the nearest anganwadi centre, and go for regular check-ups, complete some other formalities such as immunisation, vaccination, ante-natal check-up etc. If they complete all the formalities including the measles vaccination, they will get the money in four instalments through e-transfer to their bank account. Since the announcement of the scheme on September 5, 2011, about two lakh pregnant women got themselves registered.10 Similarly the bicycle scheme for girls was introduced in the month of October last year. It was estimated that about two-and-a-half lakh girls and SC and ST boys would benefit by that scheme. The condition of getting the bicycle is that she/he has to be in the tenth standard in the school and would be eligible to continue to study. The idea being if she gets a bicycle, it would check the dropout rate. Of course the implementation of those schemes would not have been hundred per cent success, but some mothers and girl children would have been benefited.

The Congress, on the other hand, tried to defame the BJD party by depicting the Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, as a ten-headed demon or Ravan of Odisha on the cover page of its manifesto. They did not focus on the real issues which is bugging the economy and society in clear language. Secondly, the Congress manifesto also presented a list of tainted Ministers and party members. The BJD Government was described as the ‘Dagi Sarkar’ and ‘Thagi Sarkar’ in the Congress manifesto. Thus even though many corruption charges are pending against the BJD, the Congress could not cash on those. On the other hand, the BJD strongly protested against the accusation to the Election Commissioner and the Commissioner instructed the Congress party to delete those sections.11

Violence during the Panchayat Election

LIKE the previous elections, this election also saw some violent incidents such as snatching of ballot- box, use of firearms.12 During this period an incident that dominated the media was the rape case in Pipili of a Dalit girl who was still in coma. It is of course not election related violence directly. But one of the Ministers of the BJD Government was allegedly involved in the incident by giving shelter to the accused. The Chief Minister immediately took action, asked him to resign. Yet another incident that struck Odisha on February 9 was the hooch tragedy in which 30 persons died in two districts, Katak and Khorda. In this case too, the Excise Minister resigned with immediate effect.13 Thus in both the cases, the negative impact was minimised.

Implications for the Future

THE fact is that panchayat elections have become so important that even the Chief Minister was busy campaigning in various constituencies. This needs to be underlined. Of course, it is true that panchayats don’t have autonomy to plan, raise resources, implement the development schemes but nonetheless a lot of money is coming to the panchayats nowadays and the party organisa-tion in the State wants to have a say in spending that money and build its support base. Moreover, the panchayats are becoming the recruiting ground for party cadres as well as State level leaders.

Last but not the least, the fact that the BJD won the elections to secure absolute majority has important implications for the forthcoming Assembly as well as Parliament elections. The BJD has already managed to build its own cadre by winning the panchayat elections. These elected members will stay for five years. Just as the CPM in West Bengal had used its own cadre of panchayat members for developmental work, particularly at the initial stage, the BJD may do the same by using the panchayat members. But this kind of tendency has the flip side also which was experienced by the CPM at a later stage and led to its downfall. The Congress party may also learn some lessons from its poor performance and try to
organise its own house by overcoming factiona-lism if it wishes to do better in the next Assembly elections.

Dr Bidyut Mohanty is the Head, Women’s Studies, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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