Why Mumbai’s municipal elections count

Kalpana Sharma

For Mumbai’s citizens, the elections are a chance to assert their right to better governance. For the major political parties, this is virtually a mini State election.

A 24-HOUR water cut in Mumbai makes national news. The reasons are not difficult to understand. India’s financial capital has managed its water supply better than most other metros. But it is still far from sufficient for a growing city. The cut carries with it a promise of more water — but still not enough. The supply of adequate and potable water to a growing city that would like to see itself as a “global city” is only one of the many issues that residents of Mumbai will raise as they decide whom to vote for in the important elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) scheduled for February 1, 2007.

With just over a month to go, all the major political parties have begun to prepare. The Congress Party opened its account with the December 23 rally for Congress President Sonia Gandhi at Shivaji Park, the Shiv Sena’s heartland. Although the party insisted the rally did not mark the beginning of its campaign to wrest the BMC away from the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance that has controlled it for a decade, and the turnout was not half as impressive as it had hoped it would be, from Ms. Gandhi’s statements on Mumbai’s infrastructure needs it was evident that the party is taking the challenge seriously. Its ally in the State government, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), also chose the same day to launch its campaign by focussing on the minority vote in a meeting attended by NCP President Sharad Pawar. And the Shiv Sena has begun the process by promising that party chief Bal Thackeray, despite his indifferent health, will campaign. Its ally, the BJP, is calling in Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to pull in the large Gujarati middle class vote.

Mumbai is not the only city in Maharashtra that will vote for its local government on February 1. Several other important towns and cities such as Thane, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Pune, and Aurangabad as well as 28 other municipal councils will also face elections. But it is Mumbai that will be the chief focus for reasons that are fairly obvious.

Mumbai is one of the richest municipal corporations in the country with a civic budget of around Rs.5,500 crore. Its 227 elected councillors wield considerable clout in determining the city’s development as they decide on crucial civic works including water, sanitation, and roads. Yet the money and the number of elected representatives have not made a difference to the quality of governance in the city.

Mumbai today faces a serious crisis in governance. This was exemplified in the way the floods of 2005 and more recent breakdowns in 2006 were handled. It is also evident in the delays and shoddy work that marks virtually every city project. Although the BMC put up a creditable performance in restoring water supply to the city in less than 24 hours earlier this week, its overall record over the past five years has been unsatisfactory.

Yet the mess in Mumbai is not just the result of a corrupt and effete municipal administration, although that has played a significant role in bringing it to this low point. The very structure of power militates against decision-making that would benefit the citizens of Mumbai. The most powerful official in the BMC is not the elected Mayor but an un-elected bureaucrat who can only be removed by the State government. In addition, the State government has a large role in Mumbai’s governance because it is also the State capital. On every infrastructure need of the city, there are multiple agencies that play a part. As a result, there is often a gridlock, with decisions either being postponed or never taken. When a decision is finally made, such as installing a new drainage system, it is too little and much too late for the size to which the city has grown.

Various suggestions have done the rounds on how this model of governance can be changed so that the city benefits. One such idea, of a directly elected Mayor, has not made much headway. At present, the party with the largest number of seats in the elected municipal council chooses the Mayor. It was also hoped that with greater devolution of powers to local governments with the 74th amendment, there would be greater accountability from the elected representatives. But there is little evidence that things have changed in any noticeable way.

People more involved

However, sometimes good does emerge from evil. And there is some indication that this could be happening in Mumbai. The absence of decent governance has forced many ordinary people to get involved in their localities. Armed with the Right to Information Act, more people are now demanding accountability from the BMC. In the past, municipal elections barely interested people and saw pathetically low voter turnouts. This time, for the first time, citizens’ groups are going to rate candidates for the elections and paste these ratings near polling booths. Voters can then decide whom to vote for irrespective of party depending on the rating. Also, this time, more people involved in civic issues are considering contesting the elections. Even if few of them win, the very fact that such people are refusing to just sit back and grumble about the state of affairs and instead are ready to take the plunge by contesting municipal elections is a positive development.

So for Mumbai’s citizens, the elections are a chance to assert their right to better governance. But for the major political parties, this is virtually a mini State election. Much has changed in the State’s political equations since the Assembly elections of 2004. The main difference is the split in the Sena and the breaking away of Raj Thackeray to form his own Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). For the estranged nephew of the Sena chief, this election will test whether he has a future in State politics. He has tried to project himself as different from the Shiv Sena. He is distancing himself from the Sena’s anti-Muslim position. Whether voters really believe his new language will be seen in these elections.

For the former Sainik and current Revenue Minister in the Democratic Front government, Narayan Rane, this election is equally crucial. Since his defection from the Sena to the Congress in 2005, Mr. Rane has managed to pull away several important Sena leaders and get them to join the Congress. Of the seven legislators who defected, six have been re-elected on the Congress ticket. This has increased the strength of the Congress in the Assembly to 75 compared to 71 of the NCP, formerly the dominant partner in the alliance. If Mr. Rane successfully delivers the BMC to the Congress, his dominance over the State unit of the party will be incontestable, much to the discomfiture of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.

The municipal elections could also indicate the future trend of the Dalit vote. After the killing of four members of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji on September 29, Dalit anger has spilled out on the streets of many cities including Mumbai. The traditional Dalit parties consisting of several factions of the Republican Party of India have been ineffective. But Khairlanji has given them a reason to assert themselves yet again. And the first signs are becoming evident. There are also hints of a Dalit-Muslim alliance in the making. And the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which failed to win a seat in the Assembly elections in 2004, is going to try again in these elections, particularly in the Dalit-dominated constituencies in Mumbai.

There is no guarantee, of course, that if the Sena-BJP alliance is unseated, the quality of governance will necessarily improve. At the moment, the Congress and NCP are not even sure that they will form an alliance. Without a pre-poll alliance, their chances of ruling the BMC are slim. Yet if they do succeed in unseating the Sena-BJP, there is little to assure us that their rule will be more stable or less corrupt. The Democratic Front government’s record in the State has been far from exemplary on that count. If people still vote for the Congress-NCP alliance, it will not be because these parties have surpassed popular expectations on issues of governance. It will be because the alternative is far worse.

So for the hard-pressed residents of Mumbai, who suffer interminable traffic jams when national leaders choose to descend on their city, who work out life with too little water or too much of it and who have only just begun to see the importance of getting involved in civic matters and demanding accountability from their elected representatives, the February 2007 election holds out the promise of change for the better, but certainly no guarantee.

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