Navi mumbai: The Government of Maharashtra extended by 6 months, the tenure of administrators of 12 urban local bodies, that include the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, who were appointed as the elections to 3 municipal corporations, 8 municipal councils and a nagar panchayat had to be deferred, though their term ended between May and June this year, due to COVID-19, as per the instructions of the State election commission.

Prior to this, the State ordered the appointment of administrators to 1,566 gram panchayats, whose tenure ended between April and June this year and 12,668 gram panchayats, whose term ends between July and November, 2020. These gram panchayats constitute nearly 50 per cent of the 28,000-odd gram panchayats in the State that would have held polls between March and November this year.

This could be a ploy to wrest political advantage by the Maha Vikas Aghadi (Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP) to take control of local bodies after losing ground to the BJP after 2014. The State government ordered the appointment of administrators in consultation with the district guardian ministers, that the opposition feared could lead to shifting of loyalties by local leaders towards the ruling dispensation. Further the unity achieved in combating the global pandemic at the grassroot level could succumb to partisan politics, as warned by a section of the opposition in the State.

Apart from the political advantage derived by putting off polls for long periods, the utilization of huge local bodies’ funds, in an undemocratic way, is at stake. This could also pave convenient paths for corruption on a large scale, without checks by local bodies on decisions for fund allocations, through established procedures of approval at meetings with quorum of elected representatives of local bodies.  

Elections can and should be announced with social distancing and e-campaigning norms being adhered to strictly. Democratic procedures that empower local bodies should not be allowed to be trampled upon by partisan politics in nexus with bureaucratic vested interests.

The allegation, by BJP legislator Manda Mhatre, of payment of Rs. 8 crores to a garden maintenance contractor in Navi Mumbai for work allegedly not executed during the lockdown, is a case in point. Fly-by-night contractors appointed directly by certain local body officials for setting up COVID-19 care centers without prior experience and credentials are examples of breeding corruption officially.

If State Assembly elections can be held as also local body elections in other States, there can be no justifiable reason for delaying local body polls in Maharashtra. This is either defying democracy for obvious reasons or acknowledging inefficiency in administering the State.