Elections to the village panchayats are due in June next year, but preparations by the State Election Commission for the polls have already begun almost seven months in advance. The Commission has commenced work on division of village panchayat wards and reservation of seats, which under the recent amendment to Section 7 of Goa Panchayat Raj Act, 1994, has been assigned to the State Election Commission to be conducted in consultation with the government. As per the instructions of the Commission, government officials have been assigned the task, and are to utilise the draft electoral roll of the Goa Legislative Assembly published on Nov 1, 2021 to form wards, while maintaining geographical contiguity and natural boundaries.
Given the exercise that is now being undertaken, the next panchayat elections may see different permutations as house could get shifted in the creation of wards, displacing some of the existing panchas, while favouring others. While this is quite a regular occurrence every time there is a change in the wards, the State Election Commission needs to take extra care this time to avoid any errors that many crop up in the exercise. This is crucial when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the reservation of wards for the municipal polls to five councils, earlier this year, which were struck down by the High Court of Bombay at Goa. The exercise that has commenced for the village panchayat polls is therefore going to be under close scrutiny.
Halting the poll process, the High Court in March this year had observed that the State in the municipal polls had ‘after having admitted that there was no policy based on which the reservation has been made or rotation policy implemented, appears to have regarded the absence of such policy as a license to make reservations based on his whims and caprices’. For the first time, a poll process that had already begun was stopped and a fresh notification had to be issued after the reservations of wards had been redrafted. It was a victory for the people and a major loss of face for the government that had been adamant on the ward reservations. This also delayed polls in these councils, that were held a month later than earlier scheduled.
Any extraneous influences in a poll process are to be avoided. To guarantee that, the State Election Commission will have to play a crucial role in the coming panchayat election and stay above board. For starters, it has to ensure that there are no errors in the formation of wards and in the reservations for the panchayat elections, the process for which has started. Right from the beginning, the procedure followed has to be transparent and above board, with no influence from the political establishment. A repeat of what occurred at the civic body elections earlier this year is to be avoided.
Not only should the State Election Commission be above political influence, it should also show itself to be above this. Having started the process much in advance, the commission will have ample time to scrutinise the wards and so too the reservations for any errors that may crop up and rectify them before they are notified. The polls have to be free and fair, and it is only the State Election that can ensure this. Goa expects nothing less from the commission. The fairness of the election does not depend merely on the model code of conduct that comes into force during the poll period and which prohibits the government from making announcements or taking policy decisions in the run-up to the polls. The fairness is judged right from the moment the process is set in motion.