Three of the four phases of gram panchayat elections in Andhra Pradesh have so far been peaceful and smooth, while the last and final phase of polls is slated to be held on 21 February, Sunday. The salient feature of the elections till now is that the ruling YSR Congress has almost retained its base by winning three fourths of villages, the same numbers it bagged in 2019 Assembly polls.
Officially, the party claimed that it has won around 80% of the sarpanch and ward member posts for which elections were held so far, while main opposition TDP disputed the figure and claimed that it had won close to 40 per cent of the seats. The problem is that the elections to around 13,000 gram panchayats are being held on a non-political party basis. As the elections are held not on the symbols of political parties, but on free ones reserved for independents, it is difficult to exactly verify the political affiliations of the winners in every village. But, broadly, the elections are held like general elections as the main parties fielded their candidates and provided them with sufficient funds for electioneering too.
Usually, the gram panchayat elections don’t assume significance as mostly the ruling party sweeps them. But, the situation in AP is different as former chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP turned on heat on the polls, terming them as a sort of referendum on the two-year rule of Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy as close to 2.5 crore voters exercised their vote.
Some of Jagan’s decisions including shifting the executive capital to Visakhapatnam from Amaravati and scrapping most of Naidu regime’s policies have become major issues in the elections which are supposed to be held on purely local matters. The run-up to these elections too has witnessed bouts of legal battles between the government and the State Election Commission which holds the polls.
State Election Commissioner (SEC) N Ramesh Kumar, a retired IAS officer, has knocked the doors of the High Court and Supreme Court so as to hold the polls. Initially, the Jagan government has resisted the conduct of the polls under the supervision of Ramesh Kumar, who was appointed to the post by the Naidu regime and is to retire by the end of March 2021.
However, CM Jagan has decided to cooperate with the SEC after the SC made it clear that elections to the local bodies cannot be further postponed. The four phases of gram panchayat polls on February 9, 13, 17 and 21 in AP have generated enough heat and dust as some ministers directly attacked the SEC terming it playing in the hands of TDP. The SEC, in turn, issued gag orders on those ministers.
Money flowed like water in these elections as some the candidates in some districts have reportedly spent more than Rs 10 crore to win a sarpanch post of a gram panchayat. The political clout behind the post and the stakes of both the ruling and opposition parties in the polls have promoted this much spending in the village level elections.
The ruling YSR Congress tried its best to ensure a large number of gram panchayats unanimously elected their sarpanch and ward members, but TDP claimed it as suppression of freedom to its candidates to contest the polls. The SEC sent special officers to verify if the unanimous elections were genuine. Still about five to eight per cent of gram panchayats opted for a unanimous route.
A significant outcome of these polls is that in Opposition Leader Chandrababu Naidu’s Kuppam Assembly seat, more number of YSR Congress candidates won, putting a question mark over the TDP supremo’s prospects in the next Assembly elections in 2024. Already, some ministers of Jagan government say that Naidu has to shift to a safer constituency next time.
At the same, TDP too gave tough fight to some of the ministers as the Opposition party’s candidates have won a majority of gram panchayats and ward member posts. TDP improved its presence in the central coastal districts where there is impact of farmers’ agitation to retain Amaravati as the capital, while YSR Congress consolidated its position in Rayalaseema and north-coastal districts.
After securing comfortable margins in the gram panchayat elections, now YSR Congress is ready to face other sets of local polls–to zilla parishads and municipalities – as proposed by SEC Ramesh Kumar. Till recently, the ruling party was reluctant to face these polls during the tenure of Ramesh Kumar, but now the situation has changed.