“AFTER this U-turn, in Punjab villages, the AAP government has got a new name, ‘U turn waali sarkar’,” says Gurmeet Singh, the sarpanch of Gunia Majra village of Fatehgarh Sahib district and the chairman of the panchayat union of Punjab.
Others may not be as harsh, but there is little doubt that the Bhagwant Mann government has landed itself in a soup over its August 10 notification dissolving all the gram panchayats in the state, six months before the end of their tenure.
After the panchayat union moved the High Court, and a PIL was filed by Akali Dal leader Gurjeet Singh Talwandi, the Aam Aadmi Party government beat a retreat, and on August 31, informed the court that it had withdrawn the decision.
Hours later, it sought to pass the buck on to senior IAS officers. In a contested move, it suspended Principal Secretary, Rural Development, Dhirendra Kumar Tiwari and Panchayat Department Director Gurpreet Singh Khaira, for taking a “technically flawed” decision of dissolution of the panchayats.
There is one inescapable factor in all this: in 2018, when the panchayat elections were last held, 87% of the posts were won by candidates owing allegiance to the Congress.
Before the AAP government backtracked, the Rural Development and Panchayat Departments had told the High Court that the August 10 notification was issued strictly in accordance with constitutional provisions.
The notification, issued by Tiwari, said: “Under powers conferred by sub-section (1) of section 209 of the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 (Punjab Act 9 of 1994), and all other powers enabling him in this behalf, the Governor of Punjab is pleased to direct that the general election of the members of (i) the Panchayat Samitis and the Zila Parishads shall be held by the 25th November, 2023; and (ii) the Gram Panchayats shall be held by the 31st December, 2023.”
Since the notification stands withdrawn, the panchayat samitis and zila parishads too will continue as is. In elections to those as well, the Congress had finished ahead of others.
Senior Congress leader Amarinder Singh Raja Warring called the AAP climbdown “a victory of democracy”. “I congratulate every panchayat member. This is a slap on the face of the AAP government.”
Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal said: “CM Mann and Panchayati Raj Minister Laljit Bhullar should immediately resign as they were behind the dissolution of panchayats six months ahead of schedule. Action should be taken against them instead of the hapless IAS officers who were browbeaten into signing the relevant file.”
BJP state president Sunil Jakhar sought Mann’s apology over this “grave mistake” and “democratic and anti-institution step”. “This decision could not have been arrived at by the bureaucracy, who are now being blamed. It is crystal clear that nobody below the Chief Minister could have approved it.”
The irony, according to Gurmeet Singh, is that in the days that followed the last panchayat elections, held in December 2018, many of the panchayat members who were aligned with the Congress had distanced themselves from the party, with the unpopularity of ruling Congress MLAs growing. “In August 2020, we formed this panchayat union and staged a protest in Patiala against then CM Amarinder Singh over the lack of action in the brutal murder of a young sarpanch,” he points out.
While Gurmeet says the panchayat members have chosen “independence” now, realising that they were not dependent on a state government’s whims and fancies for panchayat funds, others say many of the elected sarpanchs and panchayat members are now aligned more with the AAP. The process has picked pace since the AAP swept to power, decimating other parties, early last year.
Angry over the government’s move in dissolving the panchayats, Preetpal Singh Brar, the sarpanch of Bargari village of Faridkot district, says: “The AAP’s landslide victory showed that they got votes en masse from villages, as well as towns. And now, they are questioning the credibility of sarpanchs!”
Manjit Singh Dhaner, the president of the BKU Dakaunda (Dhaner faction), says: “The decision to dissolve the panchayats has hit the government hard as it touched almost every villager. The AAP could sense it, but it took too long to withdraw the notification. The damage has been done. Let’s see how they make amends.”
Says Harpinder Singh, the sarpanch of Shamaspura village of Fatehgarh Sahib district: “Whenever a new government is formed, panchayat samiti, zila parishad, panchayat, municipal corporation polls are held with a lag of one-three years. That is how it has been. But it seems the AAP is in a rush to grab power over everything. They need to understand that everything has rules and regulations. They have been left embarrassed.”
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