Bihar Panchayat Elections 2006: An Overview

– Dhirendra Jha

The latest round of panchyat elections in Bihar , the second since panchayat elections were resumed in 2001 after 23 years, has just been over. Spread over ten phases, the elections were a month-long affair and even the counting of votes took nearly a week! This was the first election held under the new regime of Nitish Kumar. The new government introduced certain changes in the panchayati raj system. Parallel to the village panchayat system comprising ward members and mukhiyas, it introduced a system for rural conciliation and arbitration comprising a sarpanch and ward-level panches in every panchayat. No change was made in the non-party pattern of Panchayat elections. Each voter had thus six votes – one for ward member and one for mukhiya, one for panch and one for sarpanch, one for panchyat samiti (block development council) and one for zila parishad (district council). Another important change was made in the reservation policy with fifty per cent seats at every level including single posts like mukhiyas, and heads of panchyat samitis and zila parishads reserved for women. The ambit of caste-based reservation was also expanded to provide for reservation for extreme or most backward castes along with scheduled castes and tribes.

While the new reservation policy promised to make the system more accessible and participatory for the rural poor, elections were actually conducted on the basis of the old feudal “might is right” principle. The polling period witnessed large-scale violence, the worst retaliatory killings taking place in Nalanda and Nawada districts of south Bihar . Ironically the two gangs involved in these gory killings both owe allegiance to the ruling JD(U) and NDA. Electoral manipulations and malpractices continued right from the day of nomination up to the counting of votes but there was no one to listen to people's complaints, the state election commission remaining a mute spectator to these events. At many places due to faulty seals genuine votes were rendered invalid. Whereas the choice of voters was clear, candidates with less number of votes were declared winners. Complaints in this regard were not heeded by the counting officials. Requests for recounting in cases of slender margins were turned down outright to favour some powerful candidates. In some other cases, votes have been counted repeatedly, even up to five or six times, at the behest of administrative officials like BDOs and SDOs, till candidates of their choice were declared winners. ings have been This election witnessed the use of muscle and money power on an unprecedented scale. Things came to such a pass that in many places winning candidates were told next day that they had lost and certificates were given to some other candidates of the administration's choice.

This was the second election in Bihar under the new Panchayati Raj system. There was resentment among common people against rampant corruption, anti-people role of elected representatives, and the dominance of bureaucracy. While people were debating over the effectiveness of panchayati raj institutions and aspiring for greater people's control and transparency, these hopes were shattered in the face of a tacit understanding among various parties of ruling groups as well as the government. These parties evaded such issues as the people's control and transparency in the functioning of panchayats. In this way debates on people's development and alternative politics were relegated to the background which would challenge their very existence. Various ruling class political parties in Bihar undermined these issues and played a game of 'might is right' while following their game-plan of turning these elections into a non-political campaign.

It is noteworthy that nearly 75 percent of panchayats in Bihar have no official buildings. Village Panchayats are run from Mukhiya's houses and Block Panchayats are rendered ineffective and elected representatives have been turned into contractors and commission agents by the bureaucracy. District Panchayats witness this phenomenon to a somewhat greater extent. Exaggerated estimates are made for various projects and upto 40% of the funds are openly appropriated as commission. Proper GBMs are never conducted and projects are finalised through fake GBMs. This anti-people character of panchayats has rendered many pro-poor schemes totally ineffective, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and has strengthened the hold of bureaucracy over these schemes.

Against this backdrop, the CPI(ML) participated in the Panchayat elections in an organized way, raising the issues of assertion of the poor, mass participation and control over the panchayats, corruption-free transparent system, and strict implementation of various welfare schemes, particularly the NREGA. Party exposed the ruling classes' attempts to turn panchayats into a non-political platform and campaigned for converting the panchayats into centres of political struggle. We also took this opportunity to expose the pro-feudal character of the new regime as particularly revealed in the government's decision to abandon the Justice Amir Das commission probing the political links of the infamous Ranvir Sena.

As this election campaign was carried out amidst movement for the implemenation of NREGA, Party gave a call to elect those representatives who can work for implementing such schemes and run panchayats basing on people's participation and control. We strived for a much wider unity of the poor against the politics of money and muscle power. We hailed 50% reservation for women, and the reservation of most backwards and dalits, but simultaneously also cautioned against attempts by socially dominating sections to appropriate this arrangement for their own vested interests. We emphasized fielding such women and dalit candidates who have been involved in the struggles for a long period.

Our experience during these elections explicitly shows that the rural masses have succeeded in effectively quelling the pressure of money and muscle power through mass resistance in places where the movement of rural poor is stronger at the grassroots. And wherever this aspect of the unity of rural poor through grassroot movement was weak, dominating caste power groups were able to manipulate the elections in their favour, despite the provision of reservations.

This was the first time when women were given fifty percent reservations and it has certainly left a positive impact despite many weaknesses. Though feudal forces tried to use women's reservation in their own interest by fielding puppet women candidates, who were not allowed to directly participate in the election campaign, the assertion of struggling women candidates of CPI(ML) had a direct impact on rival candidates, encouraging and even compelling the contending forces at least to give greater ‘visibility' to their women candidates.

In terms of results, Party candidates have won around 150 mukhiyas and more or less similar number of panchyat samiti members and sarpanch posts. The number of elected ward members and panches runs into thousands and quite a few hundreds of them have actually won un opposed. The zila parishad election has turned out to be much more competitive and our tally of zilla parishad members just barely exceeded a dozen. Among districts, Bhojpur and Siwan have turned in the best performances we won 32 and 30 Mukhiya posts respectively. We also won 4 District Panchayat seats, 25 Panchayat Samiti seats, and 32 Sarpanch seats in Bhojpur and 3 District Panchayat seats, 28 Panchayat Samiti seats, and 23 Sarpanch seats in Siwan. Some other districts like Rohtas and Darbhanga have also improved their strength, while most other districts have more or less retained their previous strength. In Patna and Jehanabad-Arwal region where several of our elected representatives had been killed during the tenure of the previous panchayat and where many of our leading cadres remain in jail we have failed to retain some of our old seats while winning some new seats. By contrast, in Bhojpur and Siwan we have succeeded in winning most of the seats in our key areas of struggle.

As far as other left forces are concerned, the CPI has failed to retain most of the seats won in last elections in its strongholds of Begusarai and Madhubani while the CPI(M) too has failed to make any impact in Samastipur district from where it has its lone MLA.

Our strategy of contesting these elections as a continuation of grassroot movements has proved quite effective. These elections have further widened the area and scope of our intervention. Now we have to move forward to strengthen this through our planned and systematic intervention within the panchayats.