It is time for significant reforms in municipal elections

  • The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Chandigarh Mayoral election provides an excellent opportunity to consider municipal elections in general.
  • Context: Elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are exemplary democratic processes noted for punctuality, well-organized protocols, and smooth power changes.
  • However, when it comes to elections for grassroots administrations like panchayats and municipalities, the situation is very different.

CAG’s Performance Audit Report on Unelected Urban Local Government Councils: 

  • Regarding delayed elections, the CAG audit reports of 17 states show that approximately 1,500 municipalities did not have elected councils in place during the audit period of 2015-2021. This demonstrates a pervasive difficulty across states in carrying out timely municipal elections as required by the 74th CAA.
  • On Council Formation: Even when elections were held, there were delays in forming councils and electing mayors, deputy mayors, and standing committee members. In Karnataka, it took 12-24 months to construct elected councils throughout 11 city corporations.
  • Long Delays in Council Formation: Following the release of election results in September 2018, Karnataka experienced a 26-month wait in creating councils and electing chairpersons and standing committees for the first 2.5-year term.
    • Furthermore, after the first term ended in May 2023, some urban local governments went more than eight months without holding elections for chairpersons and standing committees.
  • On Regional Disparities: According to the report, there are regional variances in the length of delays, with Chandigarh suffering a considerably shorter delay of 12 days than other locations.
  • On Data Accessibility Issues: The report cites difficulty in getting summary data on council formation and the election of mayors, deputy mayors, and standing committees, indicating potential issues with transparency and accountability in the electoral process. 

What are the challenges of municipal elections?

  • The first difficulty addressed is the necessity for aggressive enforcement to guarantee that urban local governments hold their elections on time. According to Article 243U of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act, urban local governments have a five-year term, and elections must be held before this time limit expires.
  • Noncompliance by State Governments: Despite the Supreme Court’s explicit stance on timely elections, state administrations do not comply.
  • Discretion of Government officials: One component of the difficulty is government officials’ discretion in arranging elections on time. There is concern that officials may have the authority to postpone elections, which might weaken the democratic process.
  • Undue Influence: There is fear that state administrations may exercise undue influence on officials to delay elections for a variety of reasons, jeopardising the electoral process’s impartiality and integrity.
  • The usage of a manual ballot paper-based process for elections is also cited as a problem. Such a procedure may be prone to errors and manipulation, emphasising the importance of modernising and digitising voting processes.
  • Issues with Short Terms: Term lengths of less than five years make it more difficult to organise regular elections. This is especially pertinent given that 17% of Indian cities, including five of the eight largest, have mayoral terms of shorter than five years. 

Suggested measures 

  • Empowering SECs. To deal with the difficulties successfully, SECs need to play a more substantial role in regulating the electoral process. SECs are mandated by Articles 243K and 243ZA of the Constitution to supervise, direct, and manage the production of electoral rolls as well as the conduct of panchayat and urban local government elections.
  • Empowerment in Ward Delimitation: Only 11 of the 35 states and union territories have allowed SECs to conduct ward delimitation. Ward delimitation is critical to guaranteeing fair and equitable representation in municipal elections. SECs should be given increased authority, including the ability to perform ward delimitation.
  • SECc vs. ECI: The courts have emphasised that SECs have the same standing as the Election Commission of India in terms of panchayat and urban local government elections under Parts IX and IXA of the Constitution. This demonstrates the importance of SECs and their authority in ensuring free, fair, and transparent elections at the local level.
  • Electoral Oversight: SECs should actively monitor the electoral process, which includes the creation of electoral rolls, election administration, and election law enforcement. This proactive role is critical to ensuring the integrity and credibility of local elections. 

Conclusion: Comprehensive reforms are required for Indian municipal elections, including addressing delays, enforcing constitutional mandates, empowering State Election Commissions, and modernising electoral processes to promote openness, fairness, and accountability. 


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