Clean Candidate elected Sarpanch in Rajasthan
Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh
The lone man pasting handbills in the market town of Todgarh and its surrounding villages seemed like an unlikely candidate for the post of Sarpanch for this prestigious seat. Even stranger were the contents of the handbill, which was the manifesto of the candidate – Tej Singh. This ‘ghosna patra’ outlined an agenda for handing over the controls of the local government to the people. Prominent amongst the 24 points detailed in the agenda were issues relating to the payment of minimum wages, the peoples right to information, accountability, participatory democracy, and finally a commitment to run an ethical and low budget election campaign.
These were issues that had been popularly considered irrelevant, and impractical in a Panchayat election campaign. If one looked at handbills that were put out by other candidates they would all ask for votes for the local “honest, hardworking, diligent, popular, pious, upright, capable,… peoples candidates.” A series of self proclaimed adjective. No issues, no agenda, no vision for the future. A few of the pamphlets might promise roads, handpumps, or schools, with the prior knowledge that the promises cannot be kept.
Tej Singh’s candidature was part of a campaign by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) to bring into focus during the election period the issue of transparency, accountability and peoples control over governance that it had been struggling for over the last decades. The MKSS had decided to support three of its workers for the post of Sarpanch in their respective panchayats. It was made clear by the MKSS at the outset that running an ethical campaign was as important as taking on the challenge of running a model panchayat should one of the candidates win.
Panchayat elections are at a time when rural society is charged with the worst kind of negative energy. It generates amongst even the most apolitical of village residents because it makes them realise that politics begins at home where its links with interpersonal and social relationships are very clear. For the mainstream political power structures represented by the MPs, MLA’s, and the parties they belong to, the election of the Sarpanch and the Panchayat is a vital one because it is the foundation on which the edifice of electoral politics rests. The corruption in our electoral democracy, and the entrenched feudalism of rural society combine to throw up an unpleasant mix during Panchayat elections.
Technically, Panchayat elections have an extremely short campaign period. In fact, deliberations for the vital post of Sarpanch begin months in advance. Traditional power brokers work out permutations and combinations based on caste and sub caste composition and loyalties, group and village rivalries, money and other power relationships despite the 73rd amendment and 33 per cent reservation, women are not consulted and gender issues find no space. Women are seen votes who will do as the men in their families bid them to.
Power brokers calculate the profits to be made during the campaigning itself. It is taken for granted that the winner will have free and unlimited access to panchayat and development funds for the next five years. As a result candidates of this self-funded election are encouraged to let the money and alcohol flow. Popular perception is built up that it is the only time when the candidate is at the peoples’ mercy so the petty bribes-for-votes must be accepted without compunction. Every vote is counted as candidates pay train and bus fares to bring in potential voters from cities and towns. All this builds up to a pitch on the night before the election graphically termed “Katal ki raat” (the night of the murder) when all ethical considerations are dispensed with, to ‘organise’ the votes the next day. It is a night, which graphically illustrates the manner in which corrupt practices have taken root in our democracy. Even more ominous are the signs of the growing success of involving all in the democratization of corruption.
And that is where campaign of Tej Singh and his other colleague’s in the MKSS stood out at first like a quixotic battle, and later on as a David and Goliath, or a might versus right campaign.
Todgarh, draws its name from the British Colonel who lived here and masterminded the subjugation of the rebellious Rawats of who inhabit the Aravali Hills in this part of Ajmer District in Central Rajasthan. The panchayat has a number of serving and retired people from the armed forces. Ten days before the election it became clear that Tej Singh, popularly called “Teju” by widely disseminating his manifesto had struck a chord with the people. The message of the manifesto had elevated the candidature of Tej Singh – a man from a poor family, with no clout except the support of the MKSS, into a candidate to be taken seriously. And incredibly enough, even the extremely affluent incumbent Shri Nemi Chand Seth who had flown in from Bangalore in time for the elections, began to get jittery. As the poor and the dalits of Todgarh began to align with the poor mainly Rawat (OBC) farmers of the surrounding villages in open support for Teju it became clear that there was a serious battle on hand. Teju continued to campaign on foot, going around the Panchayat for a day and a half with 15-20 supporters, including an MKSS song and communication team. His style of campaigning was being noticed, the issues he put forth were being debated, the momentum was growing in his favour, but everyone was talking about the lurking threat of the Katal ki raat
Ten kms away in two radial directions were two other campaigns where MKSS workers were standing for elections. Kushalpura, in the neighbouring Rajsamand District is the Panchayat where the MKSS office at Devdungri is located. Here, a young full time worker of the MKSS – Narayan was taking on a former Sarpanch Tej Singh Rawat, and a recently retired official from the revenue department, Shri Shanker Singh. There was a small but vociferous lobby of power brokers who were spreading the word that a vote for Narayan would be suicide because the MKSS would not pay percentages at the BDO’s and District offices, and therefore no work would be sanctioned. The MKSS and Narayan had during the last decade taken up issues of importance to the poor, through modes of struggle, but the people debated Narayan’s efficacy in a corrupt and corrupting system, Narayan’s frugal campaign style forced both the other candidates to maintain a level of decorum in their campaigning, but as the election date approached, it was the Katal ki raat that Narayan’s supporters feared.
In Asan Panchayat of Ajmer District another MKSS supporter Kesar Singh was battling to have the same manifesto make a strong impact on the traditional modes of dubious campaigning by the many other candidates in his Panchayat. This was a panchayat where the MKSS had fought protracted battles to get access to Panchayat records, and the Sarpanch had been suspended on charges of misappropriation of funds. Yet, the former Sarpanch and several others well known petty crooks were distributing liquor and money and the voters were bring drawn into their paradigm. Kesar Singh was one of eight candidates. Some had been paid to stand in order to cut Kesar Singh’s votes.
It seemed unlikely that he would win, but his opponents wanted to be doubly sure of his loss. And while the people were watching Kesar Singh campaign consistent with his manifesto; they seemed to feel that his was a campaign to be admired and appreciated – but not supported. Kesar Singh’s supporters were campaigning with him, but eating at home and meeting their own expenses. They kept hoping that the ongoing employees strike would cause a postponement in the election because they were sure that it would break the back of their opponents who were spending vast sums of money every day.
The MKSS campaign was being watched in the whole area, but there were many Panchayats where the lack of an alternative resulted in the old mix of traditional scenarios. Kukerkheda Panchayat for instance, took on the ambiance of a corrupted carnival as liquor was made available in unlimited quantities to whoever wanted it. As the polling date approached these kinds of measures grew more desperate.
In Badkochra Panchayat (Ajmer District.) one of the leading candidates-Koop Singh took a large group of people to the village temple under the pretext of providing a meal and got the priest to make everyone swear under religious oath that they would help Koop Singh win. In Sangawas, the ex Sarpanch Girdhari Singh set up a gateway in the main thorough fare, and got a pseudo tantrik puja performed, and advertised the fact that anyone walking through the gateway would be compelled by supernatural forces to vote for him.
Candidates anticipated symbols by looking up their names alphabetically and working out the symbol they would be awarded. Dummy candidates were put up to force someone else to get a bad symbol. The third and the fourth on the list – a cupboard and a radio looked so similar they were bound to cause confusion. The sixth symbol – a boat was quite alien to Rajasthan and Bhanwar Singh who was awarded the symbol in Jawaja had to fish a boat out of the nearby Talaab, mount it on a jeep, and drive it around day and night to ensure recognition.
The symbol is critical because it is awarded 15 hours before voting at 4.00 p.m. The candidates have a couple of daylight hours, and the night to wake up voters including the large numbers of illiterate men and women to explain to them where they must place their seal. Some voters are woken up several times by different candidates and the largest cash and liquor transactions are made at this time. This is the Katal Ki Raat.
As soon as the symbol were awarded in Todgarh, Nemi Chand’s jeeps left in different directions sporting large banners of his symbol the apple. Teju got a friend to take him on a motorcycle from village to village so that he could tell his supporters that his symbol was an aeroplane. He returned home at 8.30 P.M. to go to sleep while Nemi Chand’s vehicles continued to do the rounds. When the symbols had been awarded, Tejus supporters had used very graphic slogans – “Teju will fly the aeroplane – the people will fill the fuel.” “Teju will become Sarpanch – The people will rule the Panchayat,” and “the battle is one of the rich vs the poor.” The question that night was whether this alliance of the poor would withstand and overcome the efforts of Nemi Chand’s vehicles moving about all night.
The most difficult part of the MKSS campaign was to get voters to come on their own to the polling booth. Voters expect to be picked up and dropped. Some live as far as 10 kms away. Nemi Chand’s vehicles were playing, and Teju had made it clear that he had no money, no vehicle, and no intention of providing one. Many observers said this strategy would cost him dearly. This was perhaps the ultimate test of the voters motivation and an occasion to gauge the extent of the impact of his campaign. Would the men and women come to vote on their own?
The crowd waiting for the election results was much bigger than before. The tension was also palpable as people kept repeating. “Teju should win but will he win2.” The results were announced just after 9.30 p.m. and Teju was declared elected by what in Panchayat elections is a comfortable margin of 175 votes. The crowd broke out into jubilant cries, and it was clear that most of those who had been anxiously waiting in the cold night for the election results were Teju’s supporters. This had been a historic result. Teju in his short speech reiterated that in most matters he would function as a facilitator and would ensure that real power lay with the people.
Narayan also won his election in Kushalpura by over 200 votes. Kesar Singh lost in Asan Panchayat. Yet the real impact of these three candidates had been their ethical and extremely low cost style of campaigning. Teju had spent a total of Rs. 850/- on his campaign, and Narayan and Kesar Singh had spent just over a thousand rupees each on their campaigns. These were unbelievably low sums of money in an election where several candidates for Sarpanch have spent over a lakh of Rupees. The fact that two of them were elected, showed that people were willing to support efforts where more ethical alternatives were provided. The MKSS electoral campaigns have had a tremendous impact in the entire area. However, there are as many questions as there are expectations. A sympathetic electorate has provided support. But as many people in the area have asked, how will these Sarpanches deal with the imminent battles with the more hostile and powerful people within the system? Will Narayan and Teju also get co-opted? Or is this embryonic stage of the birth of a genuine alternative in panchayat and electoral politics in the area?