An incentive policy that was introduced by the Chandrababu Naidu government two decades ago, apparently to gain an indirect political advantage at the grassroots level, seems to have backfired now for his Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh.
In the four-phase local body polls that concluded on Sunday (February 21), every sixth panchayat — close to 2,200 of the 13,095 panchayats in the state — was elected unopposed, thanks to the incentive policy.
According to the policy, panchayats elected unanimously get cash incentives ranging from ₹5 lakh to ₹20 lakh, based on the population. The craze for the incentives was so much that even the faction-ridden villages in Kurnool in the Rayalaseema region, and Macherla in Palnadu region of Guntur district opted for unanimous elections. The political base of the TDP suffered a dent even in Naidu’s native Chittoor district, prompting the party supporters to knock on the doors of the judiciary.
Incidentally, all the panchayats where the elections were unanimous are backed by supporters of the ruling YSR Congress Party.
Crying foul, Naidu said, “The ruling party made 485 panchayats unanimous in 12 Assembly constituencies. In panchayat raj minister Peddireddy Ramachandra Reddy’s Punganur constituency (in Chittoor district) alone, all the 85 panchayats (elections) were unanimous, as if he is an unopposed hero there.”
It was in 2001 that the then Chandrababu Naidu government had introduced the financial incentive policy to encourage unanimous elections to panchayats. The objective stated was that it would avoid enmity among groups and facilitate the gram panchayats to focus their energies on development.
As per the initial policy, villages with below 5,000 population would get ₹15,000, those with between 5,000 and 15,000 people would get ₹ 30,000 and those with above 15,000 get ₹50,000 for use in village development.
In 2007, the YS Rajasekhara Reddy government of the Congress revised the policy offering ₹5 lakh to unanimous panchayats with below 15,000 people and ₹15 lakh for those with above 15,000 people. It was again revised during the Congress regime in 2013 to award ₹ 7 lakh to panchayats with less than 15,000 people and ₹ 20 lakh to those with more than a population of 15,000.
The current YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government rationalised the policy ahead of the latest local body elections, promising ₹5 lakh to villages with below 2,000 population and ₹10 lakh to villages with population between 2,001 and 5,000, ₹15 lakh to villages with between 5,001 and 10,000 people and ₹20 lakh to villages with above 10,000 population.
According to the officials, most of the unanimous panchayats fall in the second and third categories, putting a new burden of about ₹240 crore on the state exchequer.
Andhra Pradesh is not the only state to have this incentives policy. Gujarat encourages unanimous elections to panchayats through its Samras scheme. Haryana, too, has a similar approach.
“The incentive system was originally introduced with the good intention of protecting and promoting unity and harmony in villages besides accelerating development. However, after it became a policy of the government and got acceptance of the parties, ruling parties began to use it as a mantra to gain indirect advantage in villages where elections are held on non-political basis,” says Mallu Rajesh, a political analyst.
Panchayat raj minister, Ramachandra Reddy, claimed that the YSR Congress had won in 80.37% panchayats, which is 10,524 of the total 13,095 villages that went to polls. “Chandrababu Naidu is making vague allegations unable to digest the reality of his party’s complete washout,” he said. He said Naidu had lost face in his own Kuppam constituency.
The Tirupati Lok Sabha constituency in Chittoor district is due for by-polls in the next couple of months. While the panchayat results bring new hope to the YSRCP, it is a cause of worry for the TDP.
State Election Commissioner, Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar, who has had many legal battles against the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government, announced that 16 per cent of the panchayats became unanimous and there were no major complaints.
TDP supporters filed cases in the high court alleging that several candidates were intimidated by the ruling party in Guntur and Chittoor districts. The HC directed the SEC to examine the complaints and initiate corrective steps where required.