In a bid to strengthen its grip in rural Maharashtra, the Eknath Shinde-led government announced on Thursday that the chairpersons of Maharashtra’s nagar panchayats, nagar parishads and sarpanch gram panchayats would be directly elected. In doing so, the government reversed the decision of the former Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, which had mandated the election of panchayat and parishad heads through elected members of the respective local bodies.
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting chaired by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, along with senior government officials. “We have decided to hold direct ballots for the presidents of nagar parishad, nagar panchayat and sarpanch of gram panchayats,” Shinde said.
During the meeting, the cabinet also decided to give farmers the right to vote to elect the members of the Agricultural Commodity Market Committees (APMC).
By the way, these two decisions were made before by the BJP-Shiv Sena government led by Fadnavis during his tenure (2014-19), but they were reversed by the MVA after he came to power in 2019. Now after its return to power, the BJP-Shinde government overturned the MVA’s decisions.
However, this is not just a political statement by the new government. With local body elections coming up, the BJP, along with the Shinde camp, plans to make deeper inroads into the rural belts through direct elections of chairpersons of nagar parishads, nagar panchayats and sarpanch gram panchayats.
In 2018, then-Chief Minister Fadnavis argued for the direct election of chairpersons of local bodies. This decision was opposed by Congress and the NCP, then in opposition. The BJP-led government, however, pushed its polling model and it yielded positive results for the party, which gained a foothold in local bodies, which had been the stronghold of Congress and the NCP until then.
When the MVA came to power in 2019, it replaced the system of direct election with indirect ballots, in which elected members of gram panchayats elected their sarpanch, while members of nagar parishads and nagar panchayats chose their presidents by consensus or majority.
“All decisions were made after adequate consultation with members of local bodies. The demand for direct election of chairpersons of local bodies or sarpanch came from their representatives,” Fadnavis said.
Following Thursday’s decision by the state cabinet, the Maharashtra Gram Panchayat Act of 1958 will be amended to make way for direct sarpanch elections.
The state cabinet has also decided to extend the terms of the president and vice president of the zilla parishads and panchayat samitis by three months, for which section 43 of the Maharashtra Zilla Parishad and Panchayat Samiti Act, 1969 will be amended .
In another setback for voters in the MVA, Congress and NCP, whose leaders control most of the APMCs, the Shinde-Fadnavis government has decided to give farmers voting rights in the formation of market committees.
The decision implies that farmers will be able to exercise their right to vote to elect the members and the president of the APMC within their jurisdiction. According to the eligibility criteria, the farmer must own 0.25 acre of land and must have sold his agricultural products for three years in the same APMC.
“This reform was necessary to bring transparency and accountability to the operation and electoral process of the APMC. It’s the body of the farmers…why keep them out of the decision making…” Fadnavis said.
According to sources, however, the move is an attempt by the BJP-Shinde government to break the stronghold of Congress and the NCP in the states’ APMCs.
An ordinance to enforce the decision will be enacted with the required amendments in the APMC Act of 1963, during the next monsoon session.