Ballot box cleaning sets off panchayat election buzz in hills
The Darjeeling district administration has cleaned ballot boxes that were lying unused in a store room for decades, a move which has created excitement among political parties because panchayat elections were last held in the hills in 2000.
Although electronic voting machines are used for Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the panchayat elections are held using paper ballots that voters drop in ballot boxes.
“We heard that ballot boxes lying with the district administration had been cleaned recently and we cannot rule out the possibility of the state government holding panchayat elections soon,” said a hill leader.
Sources in the district administration did confirm to this newspaper that the ballot boxes had been cleaned about “10-12 days” back.
“Honestly, whether panchayat elections will be conducted or not is a decision that the state government will take and we are not privy to this information,” said an official.
In 1993, the Indian Constitution was amended paving the way for a two-tier panchayat system in the Darjeeling hills unlike the rest of the state where a three-tier panchayat system is in place.
The two-tier panchayat system was introduced following the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).
The Gorkha National Liberation Front which was in power at the DGHC didn’t want the top tier of the panchayat system as the party feared powers of both the bodies would be overlapping.
However, in 2000, elections to only gram panchayats were held in the hills. Many observers say the late GNLF leader Subash Ghisingh was against holding elections to the second-tier panchayat samitis as he believed that tier would interfere in the working of the DGHC.
After the 1993 amendment, the Siliguri Mahukama Parishad was formed for the rural areas of the Siliguri subdivision which ensured a panchayat system akin to the zilla parishad in the plains of Darjeeling district.
Areas which were not under the DGHC and also the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which replaced the council in 2012 were included in the SMP.
However, the Centre, the state and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, while signing the memorandum of agreement for the GTA on July 18, 2012, had agreed to implement the three-tier panchayat system in the hills.
“It is clear that the Constitution has to be amended before elections can be held to a three-tier panchayat system in the GTA area but nothing stops the government from holding elections to two tiers in the hills,” pointed out a hill leader.
The decision to clean the ballot boxes also comes at a time when the political landscape is rapidly changing in the hills.
Gorkha leaders Bimal Gurung and his rival Binay Tamang have come closer to each other while another hill leader Anit Thapa is set to float a new political party.
“The state government might just hold the panchayat elections to test the waters,” observed a hill leader.
In the hills, elections to the GTA have also not been held after the term ended in 2017. The Darjeeling municipality is also being run by an administrator since 2019.
“At a time when there are no elected bodies running local bodies, there is every possibility of the state holding elections to local bodies,” the hill leader said.
The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (Elections), Rules, 2012, has provisions to hold elections to the hill body either through ballot boxes or EVMs.
However, the 2012 GTA elections were conducted through EVMs. Municipality polls are also conducted with EVMs.