By Sandeep Sahu
36, 779!!! The figure should sound an alarm bell for all those who love democracy because that is the number of candidates who have won ‘uncontested’ even before the three-tier panchayat elections have got underway in the state. To put things in perspective, these 36, 779 are among the 1, 89, 099 candidates left in the fray after the withdrawal of nominations ended on January 21, which works out to a staggering 19.46% - or one out of every five - candidates in fray.
“Why should that raise an alarm?” you may ask. . Some may even argue that this has saved a lot of money that the candidates and parties (And please don’t give me the crap about panchayat elections not being fought on party basis) would have spent on campaigning and the state government would have spent on conducting the elections. But dig a little deeper and you would understand why it should worry all those who want ‘free and fair’ elections.
This uniquely Indian phenomenon of winning elections ‘uncontested’ is pervasive in elections to college unions, staff unions, cultural bodies, panchayats and even party posts. [Mercifully, it is yet to affect elections to state Assemblies and Parliament in a major way.] But not everyone knows what happens behind the scene for someone to get elected unopposed. ‘Unopposed’ rarely, if ever, means there is no one to oppose the man/woman who gets elected without a vote being cast. If anything, it means the opponent has been gained over or bullied into staying away.
Of course, there could be stray cases where the voters decide on a worthy candidate from their ward or panchayat and resolve to field him/her in the interest of the community. But these are mere exceptions to the rule that govern the phenomenon of winning elections uncontested. Deal-making is the key to it with parties and individuals haggling long and hard before finally settling for an arrangement whereby one person stays in the fray and the rest laugh all the way to the bank. There are also occasions when a person ‘threatens’ to contest – or even files nomination – without any serious intention of contesting only to strike a good bargain and then quietly withdraws from the scene once the deal is sealed.
When monetary inducements don’t work, threat is used as the next option to get the real or potential contestant to withdraw from the battlefield. There could also be cases where the ‘trouble-maker’ is given a choice between monetary gratification or physical violence – and even death. Though there is no way to find out the party-wise break-up of the 36, 222 ward members, 209 sarpanches and 347 panchayat samiti (PS) members elected unopposed (After all, panchayat elections are not fought on party symbols!), my guess is an overwhelming majority of them would have ties with the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
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If this is not subversion of the electoral process, the soul of a democracy, I don’t know what else is. Free and fair polls envisages a scenario where anyone who wants – whether or not s/he has a realistic chance of winning – can enter the electoral fray without being silenced with an offer of money or the fear of being intimidated. The election of such a staggering number of candidates ‘uncontested’ proves that this is not the case on the ground.
It is about time all those who hold democracy dear speak up against this gross subversion of the democratic process and force our rulers to usher in electoral reforms that put an end to this dubious practice. I, for one, would stick my neck out and call for countermanding elections where there is just one candidate in fray - unless, of course, it can be proved beyond doubt that all voters in a particular ward, panchayat or zilla parishad had demonstrably resolved to field a consensus candidate.