If you thought gram panchayats are the powerhouses that fuel the CPM’s rural base, it’s time to think again. The party is well on its way to creating new rural oligarchies that may lord it over the elected panchayats.
Yesterday, the ruling Marxists set the stage for their new rural power game by getting an amendment to the Panchayat Act, 1973, through in the Assembly. Those who could have raised a din and cried foul were up to their own tricks — the principal Opposition party, the Trinamul Congress, playing out its politics of Assembly boycott and the Congress not quite following what it’s all about.
Curiously, it’s some of the CPM’s partners in the Left Front who smelt a rat. But they were powerless, as always, to stall the passing of the amendment and hence the passage of the coming power play in the villages. “We saw the game for what it is but were forced to fall in line,” moaned a leader of one partner today, “it’s now up to you (the press) and Mamata Banerjee to make the noises.”
In simple terms, the power base in the villages will no longer be the panchayats. The new icon comes in the form of the “gram unnayan samiti”, to be formed by the gram sansad or the village parliament, which meets every six months and of which all villagers can be members.
The samitis will then form “functional committees” to plan and implement different kinds of panchayat work. Whether a party wins or loses the gram panchayat poll, it can rule the roost if it controls the samiti. Controlling the samiti or the gram sansad may be easier than winning elections.
And if you are wondering, as many of the CPM’s partners did, what that meant for the supremacy of the elected panchayats, the amendment puts it quite clearly. “A gram panchayat shall not omit or refuse to act upon the recommendations of a gram sansad unless it decides in a meeting supported by the majority of existing members that it is beyond the competence of the gram panchayat... to act upon the recommendations.”
Ignore the legalese and you can easily make out the fact of the matter — the gram sansad’s recommendations are binding on the panchayat. Actually, these will be the gram unnayan samiti’s “recommendations”, clearly euphemistic for “orders”.
Unlike the elected panchayats, the samitis would be nominated bodies, even if the gram sansads seek to give them some legitimacy. So, in effect, the village power may pass from elected people to nominated ones and no prizes for guessing who will control the nominations.
All this is, however, planned in the name of people power, of more empowerment of the people, which is different from empowering a handful of panchayat members. The amendment Bill says the samitis will be formed to ensure “active participation of the people in implementation, maintenance and equitable distribution of benefits in respect of such subjects as may be prescribed”.
The CPM had been arguing for some time that the panchayat laws needed amendments for two basic reasons. The concentration of power in the hands of the panchayat pradhan needed to be checked; and the panchayts had to be made more participatory than the elected bodies of seven or eight members could ensure.
Unexceptionable arguments, agreed front partners and most of them demanded the changes in their manifestos for the panchayat polls last May. “Little did we know that the CPM would change the law to make the elected panchayats subservient to party-controlled, nominated samitis,” said a Forward Bloc leader.
So suspicious were all these partners that when the draft Bill was shown to them at a front meeting last week, they wanted the government to defer the introduction of the Bill in the Assembly. They were overruled and their feelings assuaged with the promise that the supremacy of the elected panchayats would be ensured in the rules to be framed for the amended act. The RSP protested in writing against the all-important clause that makes the “recommendations” of the gram sansad binding on the panchayats and wanted it changed. But panchayat minister, Surjya Kanta Mishra, had the Bill passed unchanged.
One front leader suspected that the CPM thought it necessary to change the law to retain control of an increasing number of panchayats where opposition parties are in charge. But the real danger seems to be the possible subversion of the elected bodies and hence the very system of panchayat elections.