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Karnataka assembly clears bill to limit poll panel’s powers

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Karnataka on Thursday managed to get the contentious Karnataka Gram Swaraj and Panchayat (Amendment) Bill passed in the lower house amid heated exchanges between the ruling and opposition parties with the latter choosing to walkout after at least three and half hours of discussion
Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai speaks during the state assembly session, in Bengaluru on Tuesday. (PTI)
Published on Sep 17, 2021 12:08 AM IST
By Sharan Poovanna, Bengaluru

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Karnataka on Thursday managed to get the contentious Karnataka Gram Swaraj and Panchayat (Amendment) Bill passed in the lower house amid heated exchanges between the ruling and opposition parties with the latter choosing to walkout after at least three and half hours of discussion.

The bill was tabled on Tuesday at the ongoing monsoon session of the state legislature. The proposed law will in effect take away the powers from the state election commission and give the government the powers to set up the commission who will be tasked with the duties.

The bill, discussed amidst heated exchange on political history and reservation, proposes to take away delimitation and powers of allocation of reservations of wards and other segments or rural panchayats and done by a commission set up by the government, which the opposition said, was a ploy by the BJP and “an assault on the constitution.”

KR Ramesh Kumar, senior Congress leader and former assembly speaker, said the bill was a “manipulation to stall progress, bring down the importance of local self parties and an assault on the constitution of the country”.

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The opposition accused the BJP of trying to use the bill to further stall the yet-to-be announced zilla and taluka panchayat elections.

In August, the Karnataka high court declined to interfere in delimitation of wards in zilla and taluka panchayat that were carried out by the state election authorities.

Priyank Kharge, a Congress legislator and former minister, said the government has filed a writ petition before the court challenging the delimitation and reservations made by the state election commission as “arbitrary, illegal and ultra vires.”

The tabling of the bill comes at a time when all three political parties are gearing up to face the zilla and taluka panchayat polls, expected to be held later this year or early next year, which would be a good indicator to gauge the mood of the grassroots ahead of the 2023 assembly elections.

The Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) set aside their bitter rivalry to oppose the bill against an adamant ruling party who had made it clear that the proposal had to be passed on Thursday and be sent to the upper house before submitting it to the court on Monday.

JC Madhuswamy, Karnataka’s minister for law, parliamentary affairs and minor irrigation, said delimitation should not be under the state election commission as there is no connection between the two and the only job of poll authorities is to “supervise, monitor and conduct elections”.

“We are not against reservation,” Madhuswamy said, fending off accusations that the BJP was trying to impose reservations that would be beneficial to the saffron party in the upcoming polls.

HD Revanna, a senior JD(S) leader, said the BJP was eyeing Hassan and Mandya, two JD(S) stronghold districts with the passage of this bill. “Both national parties (Congress and BJP) have an eye on Hassan and Mandya. Even if you make the reservation as ST (scheduled tribe), you wont be able to shake us (JD(S)).”

The BJP is trying to expand its support base beyond Lingayats and to communities like Vokkaligas and the backward classes to help the saffron party come back to power on its own in 2023.

Caste plays an important role in Karnataka’s social and political life.

The BJP is known to have the backing of the Lingayats while the Congress largely enjoys the support of the minorities and backward classes. The JD(S) has been backed firmly by the Vokkaligas, another dominant community found in large numbers in the Old Mysuru region, where the BJP has been trying hard to penetrate to accomplish its goal of returning to power with a full majority.

“They are trying to make a very significant change to this bill. If it was done with good intent it was fine, but this is being done with bad intent,” Siddaramaiah, the Congress’s leader of the opposition said. He added that the ruling party can take another date from the court and do not have to pass the bill in haste.

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