Indian Elections and Gram Panchayats
Elections are the backbone of democracy. The status and roles of the gram panchayat (village council), an institution of local governance in our country, have evolved since independence. These institutions serve as a tool for communities to exercise their rights and entitlements in a democratic system. Citizens’ participation and active engagement in the electoral processes of the gram panchayat, responsible for village development, are the key indicators to assess the efficacy of a vibrant democracy. These have gained further importance with the introduction of village panchayat development plan by the rural development ministry of the central government of India, effective April 1, 2016.
Mahatma Gandhi advocated Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as the foundation of India’s political system as they represent a decentralized form of government where each village is responsible for its own development. The importance of PRI elections is embedded in the fact that the election of able candidates as members of these institutions can ensure efficient delivery of services that can further translate into inclusive development of the nation as a whole.
Panchayats can reach where bureaucrats can’t. Each village has its own set of issues, which only the residents of the village can understand and act upon. Members of a panchayat are far more cognizant of the region-specific problems and are capable of taking a more informed decision in favor of rural residents. Moreover, local self-governance institutions act as a force to counter the dominance of any particular group or caste in a village. Hence, electing the right candidates in panchayat elections is crucial for the holistic development of a village.
The Right to Vote
Voting is the most vital aspect of participation as it gives citizens i of India the right to choose their leaders who, in turn, are expected to represent their concerns and voices at appropriate levels in government. Yet gram panchayat elections experience a number of challenges, including lack of visibility, unawareness of voters, and a nexus of influential elites and opinion leaders. A villager in a typical gram panchayat election has to vote on five to six ballot papers, i.e. mukhiya, sarpanch, panch, ward member, members of panchayat samiti, and zila parishad in India, but not much is talked about gram panchayat elections in the media. The politically active state of Bihar is no exception to this. Usually, television and other mediums of communication disseminate news on state elections six months before the election; but panchayat elections get news coverage just a month or so prior. People who vote on ballot papers remain mostly unaware about candidates’ profiles or their visions for village development. A strong nexus of local elites and an enormous circulation of money play an important and decisive role in these elections. These challenges can only be overcome with increased citizen awareness.
According to Election Commission 2014 data,2 in the last general elections, 553.8 of 834.1 million Indians voted. It is alarming to note that 280.3 million people did not exercise their right to vote in the elections. This can be attributed to their lack of awareness, information, or interest; mobility constraints, and so on. Leading up to the recent gram panchayat elections, Sehgal Foundation’s Good Rural Governance program in Samastipur district of Bihar engaged with citizens to make them active drivers in their own development. The work done offers a lot to reflect upon.
Significance of voter awareness campaign at grassroots
The Gram Panchayat is the basic unit of local administration at the village level under the umbrella of PRIs, along with panchayat samiti at the block level and zila parishad at the district level. PRIs function to foster democratic participation, involve citizens in development efforts, and ease the administrative burden on the states. The representatives are elected for a five-year period. Citizens are expected to choose their best representatives; failing to do so, they will have to wait another five years until the next election.
Sehgal Foundation’s experience shows that villagers are unaware of election processes and their rights and duties about voting. Efforts by the Election Commission to generate mass awareness are often not adequate for grassroots efforts, which typically demand community meetings, focused voting awareness drives, and rallies at village level by district administration. Therefore the lack of information persists.
A never-before election awareness campaign
A week-long election awareness campaign informed citizens about their rights and duties as voters and provided them with relevant information on the May 22, 2016 elections. The campaign encouraged voters to consider a candidate’s honesty, accessibility, and commitment toward development (without giving credence to factors like caste) through area-specific community meetings and the distribution of reading material about Bihar Panchayat Election Rules.
A few days before the commencement of the campaigns, Sehgal Foundation volunteers and community leaders shared information about the venue, timing, and importance of attending voter awareness campaigns in selected villages. Other local not-for-profit organisations helped spread the word in their areas of work. Thirteen meetings were conducted in nine villages of Samastipur and Kalyanpur blocks. A total of 415 villagers attended the campaigns in which about 41 percent of the participants were female. Youth attendees helped make the campaigns successful by participating in enriching discussions.
Issues discussed, questions people asked, and people’s response
Quite a few important issues were discussed during the awareness campaigns as citizens had never before been a part of such activities. Topics were discussed such as the duties of villagers in elections, their right to vote as adult citizens of India, do’s and don’ts in elections, code of conduct (Aachar Sanhita) for elections, and the process of elections. People were keen to know more about their duties and rights as voters.
Questions were raised such as: Is it right if someone provides vehicle to the community to go to the polling booth? What if the voter’s slip is lost? Why should people vote? Is voting compulsory? Participants felt empowered as they learned more and more information about their right to vote. Rita and Champa Devi of Bedauliya village said, “We did not know where, when, or how to vote, and this information will help us in casting an informed vote in the panchayat election this time.”
Components of the campaign included electoral education on how to enrol as a voter, how to cast a vote on ballot paper, code of conduct, distribution of samples of ballot papers, and the newsletter Sushasan Patrika3, which covered the guidelines of Panchayat elections 2016 for Bihar. The newsletter was designed with the aim of helping the community understand and spread relevant information about voting rights to others in their community.
Learning – Achievements and Challenges
The campaign witnessed active participation of women and youth. Citizens from both of these sections of the population raised crucial questions to clarify their understanding of issues related to voting. Often in the past, community members have hesitated to speak up; but in all of the community-level campaigns in Samastipur, citizens were thoroughly engaged in the discussions, and the participatory approach followed in the meetings paved way for people to ask more questions. Youth, especially those who were going to cast their vote for the first time, were very curious and deeply interested to learn about details of the elections.
Villagers felt empowered and expressed their willingness to vote for the right candidates. At the same time, they helped spread the message to fellow villagers who could not attend the campaigns so others could also learn about their voting rights and duties.
In this election, the voting percentage in panchayat polls in Bihar was approximately 63 percent. However, numbers will increase further in future elections with pre-election voter awareness campaigns in addition to awareness generation and increased coverage of gram panchayat elections in the mainstream media. Campaigns such as these at the village level have an immense value in raising awareness. Though small in scale, they are effective in driving home the message more clearly.
Dissemination of voting-related information in face-to-face discussions and local newspapers can work wonders. Awareness generation is a continuous process that should be carried out from time to time, keeping in view the livelihood engagements, preferences, and priorities of the community.
Voter awareness campaigns are also an opportunity for corporate foundations, especially those primarily interested in infrastructure-related projects, to fund innovative media campaigns. The Election Commission entrusted with the task of managing elections can bank upon civil society organizations as well as corporations by using wall paintings, pamphlets with pictorial presentation, and the use of existing community radio foundations to deepen their reach in remote communities, spread voter awareness, and make the voting exercise popular. A combination of efforts to engage citizens is essential to create a more vibrant grassroots democracy.
1 In India people from the age group of 18 and above are constitutionally entitled to vote.
3Sehgal Foundation’s quarterly newsletter featuring successes and challenges related
By Navneet Narwal, Program Leader, Governance and Policy Advocacy. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org