EC officials must remain vigilant as much is at stake in ZP elections
THE zilla panchayat elections slated for March 15 will be the fifth election since the zilla panchayats came into being in the state two decades ago. As in 2015, the ZP elections would be held on party lines. In 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) contested ZP polls on their party banners but the Congress stood on its demand for political parties not fielding candidates and supported some independent candidates. The Congress has since changed its view and is ready to fight ZP elections on party lines. There is nearly a consensus now among political parties on contesting ZP elections on party lines. Elections to local bodies in other states are fought on party lines; so Goa cannot be an exception. Candidates nominated by political parties who are elected to a zilla panchayat would be accountable as much to the party leadership and discipline as to the office electors have chosen them by a majority vote for. Independents elected to zilla panchayats can be easier to tempt by one group or another, compared to candidates of political parties.
While preparations are underway for smooth conduct of elections to zilla panchayats, we need to debate the place of ZPs in the overall structure of governance in our democracy as well as their effectiveness. Ever since zilla panchayats were formed, elected members clamoured for devolution of powers, but neither the members of legislative Assembly on the top nor the members of the panchayats below have shown any willingness to cede any powers to the zilla panchayats that lie in between them. There has neither been any devolution of financial powers and capacities to the ZPs. Compared to ZPs, the village panchayats had more powers and funds, thus rendering the second-rung bodies formed for governance in accordance with the 73rd amendment to the Constitution powerless. As a result of the vagueness and complexity in the manner of governance, most of the 50 members of the two zilla panchayats (25 of each ZP), who were allocated Rs 2.5 crore each to undertake developmental works in their constituencies, could not utilise the funds fully.
Nevertheless, the struggle for better definition of powers and responsibilities of ZPs is bound to become more insistent with the holding of ZP elections on party lines. The ZP elections are going to be a trial of strength between political parties. The elections would be an opportunity for the BJP to prove that it can win most ZP seats fighting alone, as its ally of 2015 MGP has decided to fight the elections independently. The elections would be an opportunity for the Congress to prove that it retains popular support in the ten constituencies from where its elected members of the Assembly switched over to the BJP for offices of power. Parties would fight with a manifesto that has to talk of devolution of more powers and funds to ZPs. It would be in the interest of the parties not only to talk of more powers and funds to ZPs but also to fight for that if they gain a majority in elections. The parties would serve their own and the public interests more fruitfully if they select candidates after careful scrutiny in order to be sure they do not switch sides after elections.
As elections would be held on party lines, anti-defection law should be made applicable to ZPs. The expenses limit has already been fixed per candidate by the Election Commission. However, EC officials have to monitor the candidates’ expenses closely. Even though members of zilla panchayats do not wield much power, candidates use all kinds of means to win a seat as ZP is seen as a stepping stone to future candidature for the Assembly. Besides, the two main political parties, the BJP and the Congress, are set to be very competitive and zealous to spend as much as they can, for the ZP elections are being seen as a rehearsal of the Assembly elections less than two years hence. Regardless of which party wins which zilla panchayat, the EC officials have to maintain vigilance and no abuse of power and money in any form on or before March 15 poll.