Over the past nine months, Andhra Pradesh has seen a bitter face-off between the Jagan Mohan Reddy government and the State Election Commissioner Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar. As a result of this extended hostility, local body polls in the state have been delayed for almost a year. Both sides have alternately cited fear of coronavirus infections as the reason for the postponing the polls, and both sides have also argued against these fears. However, it has been apparent to observers and the general public that the reasons for the stand-off are different from what has been proclaimed. And in the meanwhile, local governance has remained at a standstill, with no elected representatives in most local bodies, especially gram panchayats, for the entire duration that the battle has played out.
Many observers say that itâs the lack of coordination between the SEC and the YSRCP government, and their obstinate natures, that has led to the stalemate, and delay of democratic processes in local bodies in the state.
The hostility first became public when Ramesh Kumar first announced the postponement of elections on March 15, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) was already in place for the polls scheduled to take place at the end of March, and the SEC wished to extend it for the next six weeks. However, he also spoke of reported incidents of violence related to the polls, insinuating that YSRCP workers were targeting opposition candidates.
Jagan expressed fury over the SECâs decision to postpone elections without consulting government officials. He alleged that Ramesh Kumar was using the pandemic as an excuse to prolong the period for which the SEC holds power, on the behest of Leader of Opposition and former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. He has since continued to allege that Naidu was using Ramesh Kumar as a âmoleâ in the SEC, and also insinuated that Ramesh Kumarâs appointment as the SEC was done when Naidu was the CM, as they both belong to the same community. The TDP sided with the SEC, demanding that Jagan tender an apology to Ramesh Kumar for casting unfounded aspersions.
Since then, both parties have gone back and forth to the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the Supreme Court, and Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan, every time there has been conflict.
While the SC upheld the decision to postpone the polls at the time (days before the nationwide lockdown began), it allowed the relaxation of the Model Code of Conduct.
At the same time, copies of an unsigned letter from Ramesh Kumar had surfaced, where he made serious allegations against the YSRCP government, and sought protection from central forces citing imminent threat to himself and his family. âLooking at the intolerant face of the top leadership of the present dispensation and their faction ridden background and known vindictive nature, I have come to the painful conclusion that my safety and my familyâs safety is in great peril (sic),â the letter said.
The YSRCP has alleged that the letter was fabricated and forged by the TDP, in collusion with Ramesh Kumar, to make the YSRCP government 'unpopular'.
The removal and reinstatement
A few days later in April, the state government unceremoniously removed Ramesh Kumar from his post through an ordinance amending the Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, 1994 which changed the tenure, eligibility and method of appointment of the SEC. Ramesh Kumar challenged the move in the HC, which eventually set aside the ordinance, and directed the government to reinstate him as the SEC.
In June, CCTV footage which showed Ramesh Kumar meeting with BJP leaders Sujana Chowdary and Kamineni Srinivas surfaced in the media, based on which YSRCP leaders alleged that Ramesh Kumar was involved in a conspiracy against the YSRCP government, with Naidu behind the scenes.
Ramesh Kumar was finally reinstated as the SEC by the YSRCP government in July.
The latest battle
Ramesh Kumar has since continued to allege that the state government has not cooperated with the proper functioning of the State Election Commission, while the government has blamed the SEC for functioning in a unilateral manner without consulting government officials. The Andhra Pradesh HC had even observed that the state government had developed a 'hostile attitude' towards the SEC.
Finally, despite objections from the government citing the imminent COVID-19 vaccination drive, Ramesh Kumar went ahead and announced the schedule for elections to gram panchayats in February 2021. The government moved the High Court, which ruled in its favour and suspended the poll schedule.
The SEC has again moved the HC challenging this order, and the next hearing has been posted to January 18.
Reasons for the poll delay and repercussions
CPI(M) state secretariat member Chigurupati Baburao says that the lack of coordination between the government and SEC has become a hindrance to democracy. âThey must coordinate and conduct elections as early as possible. Itâs not good for the SEC to make decisions without coordinating with the government. The state government also must not be so combative with the SEC. There might be concerns about political gains too, but itâs mainly about each of them having their way. The government doesnât want to recognise the SEC, while the SEC seems hell-bent on holding them before retirement. It has become more about one-upping each other, about their own egos and obstinacy,â Babu Rao says.
Political analyst Telakapalli Ravi notes that even though the courts have asked the SEC and government to hold consultations before taking decisions, proper communication has never taken place. Ramesh Kumar has also announced decisions unilaterally on multiple occasions, he notes. The SECâs latest decision to suspend joint director G V Sai Prasad for breach of code of conduct, and surrendering of secretary to the SEC, senior IAS officer Vani Mohan, to the state government, has also raised eyebrows. Such seemingly rash decisions are also likely to raise apprehensions among government officials, says Telakapalli Ravi.
Ramesh Kumar was appointed as SEC by the previous TDP government for a five-year term in January, 2016. Observers note that with the matter of the poll schedule pending before the HC and even likely to reach the Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that the elections will be held before Ramesh Kumarsâ imminent retirement from the post.
Back in March, when Jagan had objected to the postponement of elections, he had argued that the state government could deal with coronavirus better, if councillors, sarpanches, municipal chairmen, corporators and mayors were elected. Pandemic related work has been carried out in the absence of elected representatives of local bodies, and while political leaders and activists say that administrative machinery has been running smoothly, the delay in polls has affected local governance.
âBecause of this stalemate (between government and SEC), special officers have been appointed. Special officers arenât a long term solution in a democracy, we need peopleâs representatives. Right now, government plans are merely implemented. If there is a need for a road or water supply in a village, or electricity problems, only if local bodies (and elected representatives) are there, such issues of locals can be resolved,â says K Lokanadham, CPI(M) Visakhapatnam district committee secretary.
The tenure of the special officers appointed to the Zilla and Mandal Praja Parishads was recently extended by another six months unless elected officials assume office before this period. Babu Rao also says that special officers, who are government representatives, cannot remain as placeholders for elected representatives who are more accountable to people.
Whether it is NREGA, or the imminent changes in property tax, or even the vaccination drive, itâs not feasible for officials to seek out peopleâs issues on their own, says Lokanadham. âThere needs to be more decentralisation. Only if elected representatives are there, there will be pressure from the public, for them to push officials to resolve their issues,â Lokanadham says.
With the vaccination drive set to begin, observers say that elections are unlikely to happen any time soon. âThey could've found an earlier window. But because of their stubbornness, itâs the people who are suffering,â says Lokanadham.