Another round in Kerala

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

The local body elections in Kerala may turn out to be just another trial of strength between the two dominant political formations in the State, with the key issue of empowerment of the people for local self-government relegated to the background.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

THE new-generation local self-government institutions in Kerala are bracing up for another round of elections on September 24 and 26, even though there is barely any concern in the State that the celebrated decentralisation experiment that promised to bring such governments closer to the people and make them more democratic and more responsive to people's needs is hurtling away from its goals.

Ever since remittances from Malayalees in the Gulf began to dwindle in the late 1980s, Kerala has been feeling the pressures of persisting economic backwardness despite its achievements in the key areas of human development. By the early 1990s, finding a solution to this problem had become the vote-winning challenge to the two coalitions, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, which have alternately ruled the State for decades. In 1994, while the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) was preoccupied with the trappings of power and group wars within the Congress, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) set a new agenda for the State, one that meant a sharp break from the social service-oriented approach to planning and development that was followed until then to one that put the focus on increasing industrial and agricultural production.

When it came to power in 1996, the LDF tried to translate this agenda into action by unfolding the largest `decentralisation for development' exercise India had ever seen.

By the end of the five years of LDF rule, the campaign had an impressive list of development achievements at the grassroots, all of them pro-poor, especially in the provisioning of basic services such as housing, sanitation, drinking water facilities and poverty eradication. It had genuinely sought to translate the LDF programme into action by trying to increase agricultural and small-scale industrial production, improve the quality of services and establish basic amenities, through decentralisation of funds, functions and powers.

The LDF agenda was based on the thinking that higher economic growth could be achieved only through an activation of the productive capacities and demands of the poorer sections of the population, especially in the rural areas, and that it required egalitarian redistribution of assets. As the architects of the campaign later claimed, perhaps controversially, the LDF had also meant decentralisation as an effective counter to globalisation and as an alternative to the model of decentralisation promoted by agencies such as the World Bank.

The programme sought to obtain people's participation in need-based local development, create pressure from below for greater devolution of power and resources from the hands of Ministers, State legislators and officials, for example, to the people at the local level, and even mobilise resources from below for local development. The highlights of the LDF government programme were its comprehensive overhauling of the State laws and rules to support the constitutional rights of local bodies, clear demarcation of powers of the three tiers of local self-government institutions (LSGIs) and legal sanction for the regular transfer of Plan funds to the local bodies for their exclusive use.

The results of the local body elections held in 1995 (when the UDF was ruling the State and before the decentralisation campaign was launched by the successor LDF government) had favoured the LDF in the village, block and district panchayats. But election results in 2000 after the LDF came to power, widely expected to go in favour of the architects of the decentralisation programme that offered so much power and resources at the local level, were a surprise. The expectation that the LDF would sweep the elections was belied. Instead, the number of seats or votes remained almost the same for both the Fronts.

More than 50 per cent of the local bodies opted for a change of leadership, from the LDF to the UDF and vice-versa. The UDF went marginally ahead of the LDF in the number of gram panchayat seats won, winning nearly 43 per cent of the seats as compared to the LDF's 40 per cent.

The UDF won nearly 50 per cent of the seats at the block level while the LDF could win only 43.5 per cent. Only at the district panchayat level, the LDF had a clear lead; its candidates won 53 per cent of the seats, while the UDF's won only 40 per cent. Independent candidates, owing allegiance to one or other of the two Fronts, also won a large number of seats.

Indeed, the LDF's decentralisation programme could be successfully implemented only in about 200 of the 1,045 panchayat bodies in the State. Lack of adequate funds, the failure to institutionalise the changes brought in by the mass movement launched in connection with the programme, misuse of funds and corruption in a large number of local bodies ruled by both the Fronts, and administrative and political shortcomings ensured that it ran into problems even before the LDF went out of power.

Having said that, it was clear that Kerala failed to reward the LDF for its commendable efforts to introduce genuine local-level democracy on a scale and scope that was never before attempted in the country. As some of the architects of the LDF programme would later claim, a large section of the coalition had failed to make significant political intervention in the programme and claim the benefits of their own campaign.

The local body election results of 2000 were the harbinger of the change of mood favouring the UDF in the Assembly elections, which were held a few months later in 2001. The UDF came to power riding the wave of the vicious criticism it launched focussing entirely on the shortcomings of the LDF's decentralisation programme. The new ruling coalition, which had displayed an abject lack of understanding of the dynamics of the programme and its potential during LDF rule, literally starved the local bodies of funds during its first year in office. Also, by way of offering a rival path to development, the UDF announced that the mechanism of growth was powered by privatisation and liberalisation, even if it meant ignoring the objective of social justice.

Its first initiative in this direction was the organisation of the Global Investor Meet (GIM) in Kochi in January 2003 - an antithesis to the grassroots democratic development initiative of the LDF - to throw open the doors for large-scale private investment in the State. In the four years that followed, many similar mega projects announced by the UDF failed to bring in the investments that they had promised, or to spur economic growth. Subsequently, when it could no longer ignore the pressures of newly empowered local bodies, the UDF announced it was "relaunching" the decentralisation programme with a new name, `the Kerala Development Programme'. It was clearly an attempt to restructure the local bodies in such a way as to aid the ruling Front's philosophy of privatisation and liberalisation as the engine of growth, to allow private investors and voluntary agencies to replace governments in development, and to re-impose the primacy of the bureaucracy in running local governments.

As Kerala goes to the polls once again to select new representatives for the empowered local bodies, the majority of the voters seem unaware of the key difference between the visions of development offered by the two Fronts. The reason is to be found in the invisible efforts of those (from all political persuasions) opposed to the very idea of power going out of their hands.

The key principle behind the democratic decentralisation experiment in Kerala was that in order to make development equitable and effective, the people should involve themselves in the process. Vital to the success of the programme was the generation of a new civic culture involving large-scale participation of the people in decision-making on local development through the gram sabhas, the mandatory tri-monthly village or ward-level assemblies in which elected representatives and government officials were required to be accountable to the voters directly.

But almost from the day the LDF launched the campaign, except in the first few occasions, very few panchayats convened gram sabhas without compulsion, even though they were required to do so by the new law; also the frequency with which gram sabhas were convened left much to be desired. People soon lost interest and failed to take the gram sabhas seriously.

In the past eight years since the launch of the experiment, a grand conspiracy of the bureaucracy and politicians belonging to both the UDF and the LDF, irrespective of their politics, has ensured that the huge amount of resources and the vast powers offered as part of the legally mandated programme that sought to provide genuine power to the people stayed instead, as always, in their own hands. The radically pro-people provisions of the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act and the Kerala Municipality Act have deftly been kept a secret from the people. Unlike the LDF, which had an influential section of politicians favouring genuine decentralisation, the UDF, which came to power in 2001, had no element in it that showed any enthusiasm for real decentralisation. Most UDF leaders wanted the programme to be scrapped, seeing it only as a vestige of the policies of the rival Front.

Eventually, the vested interests triumphed. People were kept out again from the decision-making process and an uncooperative bureaucracy ensured that the newly elected local body representatives continued to remain uninitiated in the art of administration.

Instead of the people, the devolved powers and resources (nearly 35 per cent of the Plan funds) continued to remain exclusively in the hands of the bureaucracy and a few politicians, irrespective of the efforts to bring them under public scrutiny.

IN the context, the September elections may turn out to be only a traditional test of strength between the two rival coalitions, with the key issue that should have governed the results, that of genuine empowerment of the people for local development, relegated to the background.

No doubt local body elections have started to attract more attention from political parties and individuals, certainly a result of the increased powers and resources now at the disposal of elected representatives in the panchayats and municipalities. (For example, whereas a gram panchayat used to get barely Rs.1 lakh a year for all its activities before decentralisation, the annual allocation is around Rs.70 lakhs now.)

The most important factor deciding the fortunes of the two Fronts is likely to be the "strategic alliances" at the local level between parties belonging even to opposing political views, a constant feature of local body elections in Kerala and a catalyst for changes in power equations in local bodies once the elections are over. The result of the split in the Congress and the formation of the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran), with its compulsion to ally with the LDF in order to teach the parent party a lesson, can only work in the LDF's favour. The new party is yet to prove its strength but is expected to have a decisive presence in quite a few constituencies that could alter the fortunes of the two Fronts. The Congress faces the elections with relative harmony this time after the parting of ways with the Karunakran group. But the seat-sharing exercise for the LDF became more troublesome than usual because of the CPI(M)'s seat adjustments with Karunakaran's party.

The UDF, on its part, faces the elections with two of its former constituents, Kerala Congress (Jacob) and the RSP splinter group led by A.V. Thamarakshan, opposing it in their strongholds. In northern Kerala, especially in Malappuram district, where traditional voters had displayed a tendency to move away from the Muslim League, the party, the second largest constituent of the ruling UDF, faces the challenge of the CPI(M) making inroads into its traditional vote bank, with the help of rival Muslim organisations. The BJP was struggling to find candidates in all the constituencies and its State president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, dropped a bombshell by announcing in public that nine of the 14 District Congress Committee presidents in Kerala had approached his party to seek support for Congress candidates in the elections.

By most accounts, such political undercurrents seem to favour the LDF in the majority of local bodies. In all the elections held in the State since the UDF came to power in 2001, the LDF had scored victories, including in the Ernakulam Lok Sabha byelection in 2003, the Lok Sabha elections in May 2004 (in which the LDF won 18 of the 20 seats from the State and the ruling Congress failed to win even a single seat), and in the Assembly byelections at Koothuparambu and Azhikode.

The September 2005 elections to the local bodies will, in all likelihood, decide the fate of the much-talked-about decentralisation experiment in Kerala, even though its import seems to remain unappreciated by a majority of the voters. The debate, once again, is on whether the State will choose to vote on the basis of the performance of political parties vis-a-vis their role in encouraging or scuttling genuine empowerment of the people and development at the local level or, whether it will be, as always, a vote merely for or against the two coalitions that have dominated power in the State, irrespective of their widely different perceptions on how to achieve development.

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