Beyond symbols

The Uttar Pradesh cabinet has decided that elections to the third tier of government — urban local bodies (nagar palikas, nagar panchayats), and mayors — shall not be party based. That is, all candidates shall contest as independent candidates, and symbols of political parties may not be used. This decision raises a few issues.
There are three issues related to the validity of the rule and the procedure of notifying it. First, does this rule violate the Constitution? The Constitution does not have any mention of political parties except in the context of the Tenth Schedule’s provisions (the anti-defection law). Political parties are recognised in the Representation of the People Act and the conduct of election rules; state acts and rules may overrule these acts and rules. Therefore, this rule does stand the scrutiny of constitutional validity.

Second, was there any flaw in the manner in which the rule was notified? The draft version was notified in the gazette, a month was given for objections to be raised, and these objections were reportedly scrutinised before the final rule was issued. It appears that all requirements were met, though the government can be faulted for not publicising the draft rule.

Third, can parties opposed to this rule demand that it be

revoked? Rules are part of the subordinate or delegated legislation. That is, the legislature delegates some details of law-making to the executive. However, the legislature retains the right to oversee this delegated power, and make amendments or repeal any rule. Any member of the UP legislative assembly or council may demand a discussion and vote on this rule. As the new rule comes into effect for elections in 2011, there is sufficient time to have a discussion on the floor of the House. (As an aside, note that this process is rarely

undertaken. In the five years of the 14th Lok Sabha, 2004-2009, not even one such item was raised by any member in either House of Parliament.)

A different question is how this rule will affect the election to and working of local bodies. The size of the electorate matters. The larger the electorate, the more difficult it is for individual candidates to credibly communicate policy plans and implementation capability. The last Lok Sabha elections saw several high-profile independent candidates lose their deposits; most independent candidates who won the election have

a long record as leaders in their erstwhile parties — such as Kalyan Singh in the BJP and Digvijay Singh in JD(U). However, when the electorate is small (such as a resident welfare association), most individual candidates are known to all voters who can judge their abilities.

In the case of local bodies, the size of the electorate is usually a few thousand persons. And there have been a few instances of

locally active citizens winning even against organised parties — for example, Adolf D’Souza, who won the Juhu seat in the last municipal elections in Mumbai.

A second factor is the role of the elected post. Political parties form the basic unit of mobilisation and collective action in most democracies. Any public official who needs to mobilise collective decision-making would find the job difficult in the absence of such a coalescing system. Any legislature composed mainly of independent members will find it difficult to formulate laws and policies that are acceptable to a majority.

However, some elected positions have a more executive, managerial or technical function.

Individuals who do not have party backing or affiliation may be able to function effectively in these roles. An example of a technical role is that of the chairperson and members of the bar council who are elected by members of the bar; there is no reason to believe that bringing political parties in the fray would improve the effectiveness of the council.

Thus, the question boils down to the role of local bodies. The constitutional provisions (as laid down by the 74th Amendment and the Twelfth Schedule) view the main function of urban local bodies as that of planning, implementation and oversight. These bodies do not have a legislative function. To the extent that the role is quasi-executive, there is no compelling reason why prohibiting party nominations would reduce effectiveness.

Several opposition parties have alleged that the rule was framed with a political intent as the ruling party was weak in urban areas. Notwithstanding that allegation, this move will provide a good experiment to see whether party-less elections work for elected posts with a small electorate and a largely executive role.