Bihar panchayat elections take a US turn


Washington may not realise it, but the United States’ practice of holding primary debates in the run-up to the elections is catching the fancy of village panchayats deep in the Bihari hinterlands.

Ahead of the local body polls in April-May, a panchayat in Madhubani district has directed seven prospective candidates for the post of mukhiya to participate in a public debate on April 24. During the event, they will be required to articulate their vision for the next five years and spell the ways in which they plan to develop the villages and empower people.
Madhubani will go to the polls on April 28, as part of the ten-phase panchayat elections starting April 24.

“We have asked the mukhiya candidates to attend the public debate. Even voters insist on this when candidates visit their house to seek votes these days. Once the debate is over, the entire panchayat will take a call on whom to vote for,” said DM Diwakar, the main proponent of the idea.

Diwakar, a social scientist heading the AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences in Patna, said the idea was accepted by all the seven candidate of the Andhra Thari panchayat. There are 7,000 voters in this panchayat, consisting of Jalsain, Eraji Dumra, Bhagwatipur, Tharuwahi , Thathari, Madanpatti , Madna , Gotam and Jamaila villages.

“It’s a new experiment to strengthen the gram sabhas (village committees), comprising residents of each village. The voters should know what their candidates have to offer,” he said.

The 10-phase panchayat polls will be one of the biggest poll exercises in the state, with around five crore rural electorates casting their franchise to elect people to 2.58 lakh posts ( including sarpanch) in rural local bodies.

The panchayats have the mandate to implement development schemes at the grassroot level, be it MGNREGA, Indira Awaas, PMGSY, sanitation and education schemes.

The post of mukhiya – who heads a panchayat with an average of seven to eight villages (comprising 6,000 to 7,000 voters) – is quite a lucrative one because the elected person has large funds at his disposal and also wields substantial political clout. The polls are likely to witness a large number of women voters because 50% of the total posts have been reserved for female candidates.

So, are the candidates pleased with the idea of a ‘Jan Samwad’ (public debate)? “Why not? It is an initiative that will bring us closer to the people,” said Rajesh Kumar Mishra, a contender for the mukhiya’s post. He claimed to have prepared a “manifesto” that promises better roads and empowerment to weaker sections through the provision of jobs cards and Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) house units.

Another contestant, Yogendra Yadav, maintained he would attend the public debate at all costs. “When my rivals are going, why would I stay behind? I will talk about my priorities for the panchayat and convince them to vote for me,” he said. His manifesto includes better road connectivity, safety for women, cleanliness and a corruption-free environment.

With just weeks to go for the D-day, social workers are busily going about the task of preparing the venue for the public debate. “Public participation is expected to be huge. We want the debate to have a great impact on the voting,” said Diwakar, adding that election officials have been informed about the experiment too.

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