Just when it appeared that elections to urban local bodies in Tamil Nadu would finally be conducted after a gap of around 10 years, the COVID-19 outbreak has come as a new spoiler.
After obtaining due clearance from the Supreme Court, the State Election Commission (SEC) was gearing up to hold the elections to urban civic bodies, along with rural ones in 9 new districts, by April-May. But it will now have to postpone them to July-August.
Having got the apex court’s nod to conduct the elections to local bodies in phases, the SEC held the first phase of polls for rural local bodies on December 27 and 30. The last phase was to be held for urban local bodies — 15 municipal corporations, including mayoral posts, 148 municipalities and 561 town panchayats.
Besides these, rural bodies in nine districts — five new ones carved out of four existing districts — Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu, Vellore, Thirupathur, Ranipet, Villupuram, Kallakuruchi, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Chennai will undergo elections.
The Supreme Court had directed that the SEC should frame proper rules to provide reservations for women and candidates from SC/ST communities in the newly-formed districts and conduct the next phase in four months. So, the SEC undertook an elaborate exercise in these districts.
While the boundaries of the districts and their taluks had been re-drawn, the State had also announced the list of new district panchayats and panchayat unions of the bifurcated and trifurcated districts with effect from February 15. Public hearings were also held in these districts so as to enable the SEC to declare the delimitation of wards.
TNSEC commissioner R Palaniswamy held several meetings with revenue and district administration officials to finalise poll arrangements. He had also asked Collectors to identify polling booths. He told them to revise draft photo electoral rolls and dispatch them to all urban and rural local bodies where the elections were due.
In Chennai, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) had already released a draft list of the polling booths across the city. As per the list, a total of 5,759 booths were identified across 200 wards in February 2020. The final list was to be ready in March first week. So, the administration in various districts had geared up to hold the polls in May.
But in view of the lockdown, it would be impossible for the Election Commission to initiate the poll process. So, it is left with no choice but to put off the elections by at least two months. The SEC would be able to draw up a time-table once the restrictions on movement on men and material were fully lifted, and public transport was made available.
Candidates will also have to undertake door-to-door canvassing, even if public meetings were prohibited. A fair estimate is that elections, under a revised schedule could be held in July-August if normalcy was restored. Or else, even with some restrictions, in May or June 2020.
The Tamil Nadu Government will have to inform the Supreme Court that it would not be possible to comply with the court directive to conduct the elections by April-end and will have to seek three months additional time to complete the last phase. The apex court is expected to grant the time in view of the special situation caused by the pandemic.
On the political front, the ruling AIADMK is believed to have been getting ready for the polls, with lists of candidates almost finalized after a high-level meeting attended by senior leaders including Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his deputy O Panneerselvam.
A ticklish issue was the demand of some allies for a few mayoral seats. But with the AIADMK government reviving the indirect election method, the party had expressed its helplessness in arriving at a pre-poll arrangement. At best, only a few seats of councillors could be considered at the local level for allies, it had said.
The DMK, on the other hand, which was more intent on seeking a legal redressal of issues relating to reservation and delimitation, appeared to be less prepared for the polls. However, the success in the rural local body polls has galvanized the opposition front, even though hiccups remain relating to demand for mayoral seats.
The strategies of the AIADMK and DMK will be keenly watched as eight of the 15 Mayoral posts have been reserved for women.
In the last elections to the state urban local bodies in 2011, the ruling AIADMK — contesting on its own strength under Jayalalithaa’s leadership — made a clean sweep of the 10 Mayoral posts, and winning 89 of the 125 municipalities, DMK bagging only 23.
Of the 529 town panchayats, the AIADMK won 284 and the DMK 121. The Congress, which was dumped by the DMK, did surprisingly well on its own in elections to town panchayat chairperson (24), town panchayat councillors (381), municipal councillors (165), corporation councillors (17) and finished third.
If the DMK is bolstered by allies like the Left, Congress, MDMK and VCK, it could pose a strong challenge to the ruling party’s mobilization of men and material. But the AIADMK too has new allies — DMDK, PMK, BJP, TMC among others. So, a battle royale is on the cards with general elections to the State Assembly just a year away. One or two parties in either camp could go it alone if they were unhappy over seat allocation.
What is extremely unfortunate is the absence of councillors and chairpersons of urban local bodies at a critical juncture in the State when the government is grappling with the need to maintain supplies of essential goods and relief to vulnerable sections of the society, severely crippled by the COVID-19 outbreak.
There is no indication that the administration has roped in councillors to ensure last-mile connectivity in relief works. Freshly-elected councillors of rural local bodies do not seem to have been given any role by the district administration in the relief operations.
The government needs to get councillors into the act, both for timely inputs from the grassroots and to ensure relief to homes. In that sense, early elections to urban local bodies could provide the government foot-soldiers at the ward level, rather than leaving the entire work in the hands of over-burdened officials.