It is nearly a quarter century since substantial powers, functions and funds were devolved to the local bodies in Kerala as part of a unique decentralisation experiment launched by a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. Already, five sets of elected panchayats, municipalities, corporations, and block and district panchayats have been in power, functioning as the third tier of government that is meant to be more responsive to people’s needs and, surely, more democratic.
The sixth election to the decentralised tiers of local self-government institutions or LSGIs, at the village, block and district levels, are scheduled to take place in three stages in the State this year on December 8, 10 and 14, and a new group of young and educated candidates are in the fray, fielded mainly by the three political fronts led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Until the decentralised scheme of things was introduced through a big-bang ‘People’s Campaign’ by the LDF government in 1996, the local self-government institutions in Kerala, like in most other States, remained agencies that merely implemented government programmes imposed from above. They were characterised by excessive control by the bureaucracy, lack of financial resources, corruption, delay in the conduct of elections, and insufficient representation of women and other weaker sections. At best they had a consultative role in local-level planning.
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However, the opposite is the case now. The LSGIs in the State are no longer starved of funds or dependent on what the government of the day decides to give them at its whim and convenience. The legislative measures undertaken to support the constitutional rights of local bodies have also endured. Along with the transferred powers and responsibilities, there are legally binding provisions for the regular transfer of the State’s Plan funds to these bodies, notwithstanding complaints about delays and cuts in fund flows.
Powers and responsibilities
The three tiers of LSGIs in Kerala have clearly demarcated powers and responsibilities and institutions under them, unlike in most other States. Fifty per cent of the posts of president and vice president in these local bodies are reserved for women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The reserved seats are rotated on a regular basis before every election that has to take place once in five years. Control over officials of various government departments is in the hands of the local bodies.
Service institutions, such as government schools and hospitals up to the district level, and institutions that have a bearing on the everyday life of people, including in the agriculture, fisheries, micro-irrigation and small-scale industrial sectors, are under the jurisdiction of the LSGIs. Panchayats are fully responsible for poverty eradication measures, the upkeep of roads (except highways and major district roads), and provisioning of basic services such as housing, sanitation and drinking water facilities.
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However, the key idea that drove the ‘democratic decentralisation’ experiment in 1996—that development could be equitable and effective only if the people controlled the process themselves—has unfortunately been allowed to wither away. The ‘grama sabhas’, envisioned uniquely in India as a fourth tier of government, in which “all persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls” were members, have not been allowed to prosper.
The grama/ward sabhas were to be the essence of the decentralisation experiment in the State. They were legally required to be convened every three months, have a specified quorum, operate as a forum for direct democracy, a sort of ward/village-level parliament, with “the right to know”, and discuss and change almost every (especially development and welfare) activity in a village constituency. This was meant to check corruption and excessive control by the bureaucracy and politicians in the local bodies. However, elected (political) representatives and officials, who have more powers and resources at their disposal now, are still firmly in the saddle.
Despite this, what Kerala’s decentralisation programme has achieved otherwise, especially in terms of delivery of basic services to people, as a result of the empowerment of local bodies and the devolution of powers and funds and responsibilities, is so remarkable that hardly any mention of what was lost on the way is in public memory today.
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Response during crises
Moreover, the achievements of the revamped LSGIs have mostly all been pro-poor, especially in the provisioning of basic services such as health, education, housing, sanitation, drinking water facilities and poverty eradication.
This was evident in the response of the local bodies during the devastating floods Kerala faced in 2018 and 2019, and especially throughout this year when the State was struggling with the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. With enhanced resources and political and administrative power, the nearly 1,200 local bodies performed remarkably well along with the State government, especially in tasks such as spreading awareness, gathering data on the COVID-19 affected, implementing quarantine/lockdown norms, sanitising public places, ensuring the supply of essential commodities especially to the sick and vulnerable sections, and delivering essential services.
In the past five years, several LSGIs and elected representatives, belonging to different political hues, have performed extremely well and many have not. In times of crisis or otherwise, the work of each elected ward member or the local body today is so linked to people’s daily lives that every election becomes a direct test of their performance. It is also a training ground that offers a lot of experience and opportunity for new leadership to emerge in all political parties.
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To a large extent, local body elections are decided on the basis of local issues and, especially, the quality and performance of individual candidates. But this time, the political context under which these elections are being fought, barely four months before the State Assembly election, remains so vitiated with allegations and counter-allegations by ruling and opposition parties and inquiries by Central and State government agencies allegedly targeting political rivals, that they could well overwhelm or alter people’s preferences at the last minute.
Until well into its fourth year, and even a few months ago, the LDF government had distinguished itself with the novel policies, programmes and development initiatives it had launched and in the way it had handled the two catastrophic floods in 2018 and 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic with meagre resources at its disposal.
Allegations against LDF
There was hardly any doubt that the ruling LDF had the upper hand in State politics until the middle of 2020. With elections around the corner, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the BJP began to raise a series of allegations almost in a synchronised and debilitating manner, all of them targeting the important policy initiatives of the LDF government.
The first in this series of allegations was raised by Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala on the lack of transparency in the deal struck by the State government with a U.S.-based technology firm called Sprinklr. He accused the government of not following due procedure in appointing the company and of allowing it to collate and handle the health data of people under quarantine without taking their individual consent, thus leaving open an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to get hold of crucial health data of nearly 1.75 lakh people.
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It soon turned out, during the progress of the court cases filed by Ramesh Chennithala, that despite perhaps the best of intentions, proper procedures were not followed in the deal and the questions raised about the lack of patient consent and possibility for data misuse could well be true. It was the first such victory that, even as it put a damper on the efforts of the State to tackle COVID-19, energised the UDF and the BJP to launch similar concerted attacks against a number of key government programmes and policies.
To the LDF and the CPI(M), which were confident of coming up trumps in the local body polls and winning another term in office in the next Assembly election, the most debilitating blow came in the form of the gold smuggling case (“Kerala gold smuggling case: Crossing the line”, Frontline, August 14) and the involvement of M. Sivasankar, Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, in it.
Separate inquiries by the Customs, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) in the case, which have often produced conflicting versions of the details of questioning and the events that led to it, have slowly turned towards not just Sivasankar and those who were part of the smuggling network but also the Chief Minister’s private secretary, C.M. Raveendran, following their reported disclosures.
Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel too was called for questioning several times by the E.D. Meanwhile, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, State secretary of the CPI(M), went on leave citing medical reasons after the arrest of his son Bineesh Kodiyeri under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, and for his alleged links to a narcotics case.
In the beginning the State government welcomed any type of inquiry into such allegations by Central agencies, but then openly began to allege that the BJP and the Centre were misusing these agencies to strike at the LDF government. Meanwhile, a ‘leaked’ audio recording of a phone conversation purportedly between Swapna Suresh, an accused in the gold smuggling case, and an anonymous person has led the CPI(M) and the Left parties to allege that the E.D.’s motivated target may well be Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself.
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The ruling front launched a series of agitations, the first of them on November 16 at 25,000 centres in the State, against what it said was the Union government’s vindictive approach towards the State government and accused it of trying to use Central agencies to scuttle prestigious development projects, such as the Life Mission housing project, the Kerala Fiber Optic network free Internet project, the Taurus IT Park at Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, and the E-mobility project with plans to build 3,000 e-buses in collaboration with the Switzerland-based firm HESS.
In a tit-for-tat response, the State police agencies also began to target UDF leaders in Kerala. Muslim League leader and Manjeswaram MLA M.C. Khamaruddin was arrested in a multi-crore financial fraud case relating to a gold jewellery business firm. A Vigilance court ordered an inquiry against another UDF MLA, K.M. Shaji, allegedly for amassing illegal assets. On November 19, the police also registered the arrest of Muslim League leader and former PWD Minister V.K. Ibrahim Kunju from his hospital bed over corruption charges in the construction of a key bridge at Palarivattom in Kochi. Shortly thereafter, the State Vigilance Department also launched an inquiry against Ramesh Chennithala and two other former Congress Ministers, K. Babu and V.S. Sivakumar, over allegations by a hotelier that they had accepted bribes from bar owners when the UDF was in power.
Moves are afoot to revive a few other cases: the solar scam case, targeting afresh former Congress Minister A.P Anil Kumar in addition to former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy; a case against Congress MLA P.T. Thomas in a controversial land dispute; and a case against Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Mullappally Ramachandran for making derogatory remarks against women.
Much to the delight of the UDF and the BJP, the political discourse in the State on the eve of the crucial elections has turned squarely onto the multitude of inquiries launched by the Central and State agencies and away from the LDF’s remarkable governance and development record of the past four years.
The BJP was the first to raise these allegations against LDF leaders and government and UDF leaders too, perhaps more vehemently against the latter section. The BJP’s new State president, K. Surendran, claimed: “The Congress-led UDF does not have the strength any longer to oppose Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and hence, the elections to the local bodies have turned out to be a fight between the CPI(M)-led LDF and the BJP-led NDA.”
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Surely, if the allegations by the ruling Front’s leaders are true, the BJP has a lot going in this election, and with the support of the Central agencies it hopes to make further inroads into Kerala politics, still dominated by the coalitions led by the CPI(M) and the Congress.
To emerge stronger from the the cloud of allegations, the LDF needs to refocus the attention of the State to its credible development record of the past four years, achieved to a large extent through the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB). The KIIFB is a unique corporate body formed originally in 1999 but reinvented four years back by the LDF government specially for funding a slew of infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges, hospitals and school and colleges with smart classrooms, stadiums and parks in almost all Assembly constituencies. The government had announced that Kerala planned to mobilise at least Rs.60,000 crore in the next seven to eight years through the KIIFB for infrastructure development in the State.
But in the ongoing political battle for winning voters to their side, this unique and hugely beneficial project too is under attack, mainly owing to a controversial finding of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its report (yet to be tabled in the Assembly) that the KIIFB had raised Rs.2,150 crore from the international market without the consent of the Central government and that the masala bonds it issued to raise money from foreign markets were in violation of Article 293 (1) of the Constitution.
The State government has challenged these claims even as the E.D. has reportedly opened a preliminary inquiry to examine whether borrowings by the KIIFB from overseas markets violated provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). A parallel controversy is also going on, with the opposition claiming that Dr T.M. Thomas Isaac, the State Finance Minister, had prematurely disclosed the contents of the CAG’s report before it was tabled in the Assembly. It has decided to approach the President and the Governor, claiming that this was a serious lapse, and the Speaker for breach of privilege of the Assembly, against Isaac. The Finance Minister, in turn, alleged that it was a conspiracy hatched by the Sangh Parivar and the Congress who were working in tandem to thwart the development activities in the State and destabilise a functioning government.
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Over 2.76 crore voters (over 25 lakh more than in 2015) are to vote in this election to posts in 1,200 local bodies. The term of the existing local bodies ended on November 11 and the new elected bodies ought to have assumed office by November 12. But the State government, as well as all political parties except the BJP, had asked the State Election Commission for a postponement of the elections in the context of COVID-19. The local bodies will continue to be run by committees of officials until the new elected bodies assume office before December 25, as per the schedule drawn up by the State Election Commission.
In 2015, the voters surprised the then ruling UDF, which had consistently won all the elections held in the State during its term in office, by giving the LDF a thumping victory in the local body elections. This also proved to be an indication of things to come in the Assembly elections that followed in 2016, which the LDF swept.
According to the 2015 provisional figures, the only official party-wise breakdown published by the State Election Commission, the LDF won 549 of the 941 grama panchayats and 90 of the 152 block panchayats, while the UDF won 365 grama panchayats and 61 block panchayats.
The results in the 14 district panchayats, 87 municipalities and six corporations were more even. The LDF won 44 of the 87 municipalities, seven of the 14 district panchayats and four of the six corporations, while the UDF bagged 41 municipalities, seven district panchayats and two corporations.
There was also consolation for the BJP, whose long and desperate attempts to break the stranglehold of the two prominent political coalitions in the State finally resulted that year in some decent electoral gains at the local level. The party got 51 corporation councillors and was victorious in 236 municipality, 933 grama panchayat, 21 block panchayat and three district panchayat wards.
The party’s best performance was in Thiruvananthapuram corporation, where it surprised even its own cadres and leaders by winning 34 of the 100 seats, pushing the UDF coalition (with 24 seats) to third place. The LDF, which had been ruling the council, won 42 seats, nine short of a majority.
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The BJP also opened its account in all corporations except Kannur, winning seven seats in Kozhikode, six in Thrissur and two seats each in Kollam and Kochi, and emerged as the single largest party in Palakkad municipality by winning 24 of the 52 seats.
This time around, with some help from the ongoing investigations by Central agencies and utilising and utilising the cloud of allegations it has been able to raise almost hand in hand with the UDF, the party hopes to consolidate the gains it made in 2015. It will likely focus on winning the Thiruvananthapuram corporation this time, and bagging the maximum number of wards possible in other local bodies. But unlike earlier occasions, divisions in the party are sharper, which has affected the party’s candidate selection and election readiness in a big way in many districts.
On the other hand, but for the allegations raised by the LDF’s rivals and its uncertain defence against many of them, the ruling front’s governance and development record alone would have been enough for it to sail through in the upcoming elections. Given its lacklustre performance in the opposition and the corruption inquiries against many of its leaders, the UDF could then have hoped only for second position.