Raj govt should withdraw poll fiat

The Rajasthan government’s decision, given effect through an ordinance last week, prescribing a minimum educational qualification for contesting panchayat elections in the state is unfair and discriminatory. It is also likely to be struck down as unconstitutional by the courts where it is certain to be challenged.

The Constitution allows any person above 25, irrespective of sex, education or social and economic standing, to contest elections to legislative bodies. The Rajasthan ordinance violates the spirit of this provision. It has made it mandatory that candidates contesting zilla parishad and panchayat samiti polls should have passed Class X.

The eligibility for contesting sarpanch elections is Class VIII pass. The government did not hold any discussion with civil society groups or political parties before issuing the ordinance. Nor was there a discussion on the matter in the assembly. The elections to panchayat bodies are due soon.

The government says that it has laid down the eligibility criterion to check embezzlement of funds at the hands of panchayat representatives who, it says, often put their thumb impression on papers without reading them, being illiterate.

It is not difficult to have a system of financial accountability in which officials are involved and they give advice to elected representatives. In any case, a minimum educational benchmark is no guarantee against corruption, non-application of mind or inability to understand issues and figures.

The administrative and other abilities of a person who holds a public office do not depend on his or her educational qualification. K Kamaraj, arguably the best chief minister Tamil Nadu has had, had studied only up to Class V.

The government’s other argument that the eligibility norms will improve literacy levels in the state is even more ludicrous. Nobody is going to send children to school in order that they can contest panchayat elections when they grow up.

The government’s move amounts to a selective disqualification policy and is against the idea of making democracy most inclusive and participatory. Widest participation is especially needed at the grassroots level.

The minimum qualification norm is discriminatory and will work mostly against people in rural areas, poorer sections, women, and members of minority communities, dalits and other weaker groups who are likely to have low literacy levels.

In Rajasthan, the literacy rate is about 75 per cent for males and 45 per cent for females. When the new rule comes into effect, one out of every four men and more than half the women will not be able to contest panchayat elections. That will make elections very unrepresentative.

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