Analysis| AAP’s flip-flop on panchayats in Punjab reflects poorly on govt.’s style of working 


As if the flip-flop by the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab by first dissolving all panchayats across the State, and days later reverting its ‘technically flawed’ decision was not enough to its embarrassment, its attempts to shift the blame on the bureaucracy appears to have reflected poorly on the government’s style of working.

On August 10, the Punjab government issued a notification dissolving all gram panchayats, panchayat samitis, and zila parishads in the State. The order also stated that the general election of the members of panchayat samitis and the zila parishads, shall be held by November 25, 2023, and of the gram panchayats, shall be held by December 31, 2023.

Soon after the notification, the government faced stiff resistance to its decision from the Opposition, including the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as they termed the decision ‘unconstitutional’. The government did not budge and kept defending its decision even as the decision was challenged in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The government asserted that the dissolving order on panchayats was in accordance with constitutional provisions as the government had the constitutional duty and power to hold the elections of Panchayati Raj Institutions under Section 209 of the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.

There are 13,241 gram panchayats, 152 block samitis and 22 zila parishads in Punjab.

IAS officers’ suspension

However, on August 31, during the hearing of the matter in the High Court, the State government took a U-turn, and announced withdrawing the notification. The Opposition parties termed it as a victory of democracy, leaving the government red-faced. Later, in what appeared to be a face-saving exercise by the government, the entire onus for the fiasco was put on the bureaucracy. By the evening of August 31, the State government suspended two senior IAS officers including Dhirendra Kumar Tiwari, Principal Secretary (Rural Development-Panchayats) and Gurpreet Singh Khaira, Director (Rural Development-Panchayats). In a statement, Rural Development and Panchayats Minister Laljit Singh Bhullar said the State government has suspended the principal secretary and director of the rural development and panchayats department with immediate effect for taking a “technically-flawed” decision regarding the dissolution of panchayats.

This entire episode, a few political observers and public representatives feel has put the style of government’s functioning in a bad light. “On its very face, it appears that the government has not handled the situation in a professional manner. The entire episode has brought an embarrassment to the government and its style of functioning,” said Kehar Singh, former head of the Department of Political Science, Punjabi University.

‘Govt’s incompetency’

Pointing out that dissolving the panchayats and later withdrawing the decision reflected the government’s incompetency, Mr. Singh said that further, the decision to suspend two IAS officers was perhaps an attempt to evade the embarrassment by the ruling political leaders at the helm of the affairs, which again could not be appreciated.

“No such political decision [dissolving panchayats] could be taken without the approval of political bosses. The file noting relating to the dissolving decision, which was signed by the Chief Minister and the Minister concerned, came to the public domain. But even if this file noting would not have come out, no knowledgeable person of political matters would believe that such a big decision could have been taken by the bureaucrats on their own, and not at the instance of the political bosses. Now, the blame is being shifted to bureaucracy, which is not acceptable. In fact this would only discourage and demotivate the bureaucracy, sending a wrong message down the line,” said Mr. Singh.

In a petition against the government’s decision to dissolve the panchayats moved by SAD leader Gurjeet Singh Talwandi in the High Court, it was contended that all the gram panchayats in Punjab were illegally dissolved by exercising power under Section 29A of Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, which was against public interest and arbitrary and contrary to Articles 21, 243-E of the Constitution of India.

It pointed out that the panchayats were been dissolved almost five months prior to the completion of their tenure of five years which is to expire in December 2023. The petitioner contended that going against provisions of the Constitution of India and the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, in order to defeat the mandate of the people and order to misuse the panchayat funds, the ruling government in Punjab dissolved all the panchayats in the State, before completion of their five-year-term. The State government had also issued a communication to suspend all the financial transactions of panchayats till further orders, the petitioner had stated. The State government later withdrew its decision to withhold the funds of panchayats.

‘Lack of experience’

Asserting that people are politically observant, an assistant professor of Political Science at Panjab University’s Rural Centre at Kauni in Muktsar Sahib district, who requested anonymity, said “The current decision can’t be seen in isolation as the ruling government has previously taken U-turns on certain other decision as well, which shows the lack of experience in the government that has relatively new faces, who were elected in 2022 Assembly election. The people observe such actions and if things don’t improve, there’s no doubt a negative perception could develop against those in power.”

As the State government continues to face the heat on the issue, AAP Punjab chief spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang told The Hindu “The responsibility of conducting ‘panchayat’ elections is on the State government as the term is about to be over in next five months. In the entire episode, there was some gap, and mistake surrounding the technical advice by the department. There are several organs involved when a government makes a decision. The mistake on the technical part was realised, and hence the notification was withdrawn, not only this, firm action was taken against the officials responsible. The government will conduct panchayat elections in the coming days as per the rule of the law.”

While the State government asserts that it went ahead with a course correction, Harbans Singh, Sarpanch (village head) of Bhai Desa village in Mansa district, said that the government’s decision to dissolve the panchayats was absolutely illegal, and even though the decision has been withdrawn, its adverse effects have impacted the functioning of panchayats. “The government first dissolved the panchayats and then froze the funds. We are building a sports stadium in my village, some of its work has been completed, and for the rest of the construction work we were preparing estimates, but now even though the decision to dissolve the panchayats and freezing the funds has been withdrawn, there’s a confusion at the ground level, which has augmented problems for us.”

Opposition blames CM Mann

The Opposition, meanwhile has been upping the ante against the AAP and particularly Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, accusing the government of making the ‘bureaucracy’ a scapegoat for its ‘unconstitutional’ decision.

The Leader of the Opposition in Punjab, Congress’s Partap Singh Bajwa, seeking the reinstatement of the two suspended senior bureaucrats, said they were made scapegoats and suspended in a haste to hush up the matter. He said the AAP government was running away from conducting an inquiry on the issue.

“Dissolving panchayats was certainly a politically motivated decision. Rural Development and Panchayat Minister Laljit Singh Bhullar and CM Bhagwant Mann were closely monitoring the entire process of strangulation of the democratic institute. The possibility of some higher AAP leaders’ involvement in the entire episode cannot be ruled out,” alleged Mr. Bajwa.

Former Deputy Chief Minister and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said the Chief Minister was trying to hide by making the bureaucrats the scapegoats on the issue. “The fact is that the entire process of dissolution of panchayats to be followed by election was initiated, piloted and signed by Bhagwant Mann through the concerned Minister Laljit Singh Bhullar,” he said in Ludhiana recently.

He added that if anyone needed to be punished, it was the Panchayati Raj Minister and the Chief Minister and not the two bureaucrats who have been suspended.

Former Chief Minister and BJP leader Capt. Amarinder Singh also criticised the AAP government and demanded the Chief Minister to step down from his post, instead of passing the buck onto his officers.


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