Local body elections display the grassroots-level reach of political parties in smaller towns and villages, which contributes heavily to vote banks. In Tamil Nadu, where rural panchayat polls are currently ongoing in 27 districts after a gap of three years, the results are expected to affect the next assembly elections, slated in 2021, for the first time.
The five year terms of local bodies used to end close to the heels of the assembly elections, and regime changes ensured the ruling party’s domination in the fresh civic polls. And similarly, the ruling party-dominated local bodies were often used to influence the next assembly polls.
But, since the panchayat elections are being held over a year ahead of the assembly polls this time, it will be a challenge for the Dravidian parties to prove its relevance in the current political scenario in the state, especially for the AIADMK, which had suffered a huge setback in the Lok Sabha polls.
G Palanithurai, former professor of political science and development administration, Gandhigram University and an authority on Panchayati Raj studies, say this election will provide more edge to the AIADMK.
“For AIADMK, getting a majority in civic polls will motivate the party workers and enhance their chances of returning to power in 2021. Also it will become a hurdle for the DMK to reach the grassroots-level voters even if it comes to power in the next assembly polls,” he said. He said in an environment of “manipulated democracy”, it is often the ruling party that gets majority in local bodies.
“Most of the panchayat presidents are not affiliated to any political parties. But, with a change in the regime, they often incline towards the ruling party to get the government grants. This is the trend we have been seeing in the last three local body elections,” said Palanithurai.
Asked about the DMK’s repeated filing of cases in the Supreme Court to stall the civic polls, he said a party like the DMK, which is “scientifically organised”, will not bother much about defeat and loss. “The DMK did not file cases to stall the elections. They did so to ensure the delimitation and reservation processes are followed properly,” he said.
‘People in rural areas like DMK more’
K Saravanan, president, Thannaatchi, an organisation working towards creating awareness about the powers of the local bodies, opines the dynamics of assembly elections is a different ball game altogether.
“The outcome of the panchayat polls are less likely to affect the 2021 assembly polls since the dynamics of assembly elections is entirely different. During assembly polls, local issues like those pertaining to the supply of drinking water do not play a major role in deciding the mandate. Rather, people look for a stable government and sustained governance in the state,” he said.
He added that both DMK and AIADMK have an equal opportunity in this election, however, the latter has more chances since “the ruling party has spent money like water”. “But people in rural areas prefer the DMK more since the voters think of AIADMK as a party having a lot more negatives sides. Moreover, people there don’t even know DMK has filed cases to stall the elections,” Saravanan said.
‘Golden opportunity for AIADMK’
This election will be a “golden opportunity” for the AIADMK, said R Elango, former panchayat president of Kuthambakkam village. Or a “missed” one if it fails, he said.
In urban local bodies, the official paraphernalia looks after the management of the party, but in rural bodies, panchayats are scattered, he said. “The needs of the panchayats are looked after by special officers without any coordination. So, AIADMK needs to focus more on rural local bodies to win the trust of the people,” he said.
“During the first civic polls (in 1996), the then DMK government gave full autonomous to the local bodies. After the regime change in 2001, the AIADMK government did not bother much about them. It demoralised the local bodies. Again in 2006, DMK came to power and interfering in local body governance. It destroyed the spirit of local governance. This continued during the 2011 AIADMK regime too,” he said.
But this time, he said AIADMK has a “golden opportunity”. In the remaining one and a half years, if the present regime focuses on the local bodies, it will help them in the 2021 elections, he said. If enough funds and grants are not provided to the local bodies, then their representatives would rather themselves start working for the DMK, he added.
“For example, since there has been no elected local body representatives for the past three years, every panchayat has electricity arrears worth lakhs. When the government provides funds for local bodies, the larger share will be used for clearing such dues. And thus, additional funds will be sought for.
“If the government turns down those demands of the local bodies, then the next assembly poll results will certainly not be in favour of the AIADMK. It will be a missed opportunity for them. If the DMK promises more funds and autonomy to the local bodies in their election manifesto, then the representatives would rather support the DMK,” added Elango.
Responding to a question on whether the DMK sought to stall the elections due of its fear of losing, Elango said, “That could be true. DMK could have thought it can delay the elections by at least six months by filing such cases and strengthen the party’s hold in the local bodies in the meantime. There were also concerns that if AIADMK manages the local bodies in a good manner during that time, it will help them in the assembly polls. So, the DMK’s fear factors cannot be ruled out,” he said.
‘Difficult to establish any trend so early’
K Gireesan, associate professor, department of local governance and development, Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, said the timing of the election is “well poised” for both AIADMK and DMK.
Since the outcomes of the last parliamentary elections and the assembly bypolls were very different from each other, it would be difficult to establish that the outcome of the local body elections will impact the assembly polls, he said.
“DMK swept the Lok Sabha polls, whereas, the AIADMK performed well in the assembly bypolls. For AIADMK, the survival of its government is more important than winning Lok Sabha seats. So, it focused properly on the bypolls. Outcome of the urban local body polls can be linked to the next assembly elections to some extent. But those elections will be held later. As of now, it is difficult to establish any trend. However, we expect some very useful inputs from the rural polls results,” he said.
Panchayat polls in Tamil Nadu were last held in 2011. The 2016 elections were deferred due to the death of then chief minister J Jayalalithaa, natural disasters and other administrative reasons. After judicial intervention, the elections are finally being held in the state after a gap of three years.