Mumbai Hosts Elections Fit for Many Small Countries: Choudhury

Later this week, the city of Mumbai will witness a most unusual election: rambunctious, widely watched and keenly contested, even by India's feverish standards.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) of Mumbai is both the oldest such entity in India (it was set up in 1882) and the richest. It is in charge of public works -- road-building, water supply,  sanitation, garbage collection, maintenance of parks and public spaces -- that affect the lives of the 20 million citizens of the nation's commercial capital, and one of the most densely populated (and some would say dystopian) metropolises in the world. Every five years the corporation holds elections for representatives from each of the city's 227 wards, which each have an average population of 45,000.

Although the work it does is unglamorous, the BMC's annual budget exceeds those of many small Indian states -- reason enough for all the major national political parties, as well as several groups local to Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra, to have a keen interest in the elections. Success means a foothold, at the level of street and neighborhood, in India's most prosperous and most storied city, an influential voice in how it is run, and the power to nurture networks of patronage and profit through the use (and misuse) of public funds on a scale unavailable in any other municipal corporation. This year, more than 2,300 candidates will take a stab at becoming a BMC corporator. Dozens of parties will be in the fray, as will hundreds of independent candidates (many of whom have come together on a platform called Mumbai 227).

To the citizens of Mumbai -- wearied by the city's soaring property costs and lack of public housing, its packed trains and buses and clogged, potholed streets, its lack of public and recreational spaces, the high taxes on everything from movie tickets to bottles of alcohol -- the quinquennial elections offer an opportunity for some political agency and the discussion of local issues, unavailable in elections to the state and national assemblies. Although the city's substantial middle class, insulated from some civic problems because of its resources, and cynical about the prospects of bringing about change through the ballot box, is often too disinterested to vote, the fact remains that this is the one occasion in the Mumbaikar's life when his or her vote carries a real significance. As Seema Kamdar explained in a piece in DNA called "Where Each Vote Counts":

To understand how narrowly one could miss winning, here’s a look at how closely the last election was fought: Almost 50 seats out of 227 were decided by around 1,000 votes. Another 45-odd seats were won with a humbling edge of around 500 votes. This means a housing society of about 500 adults — and Mumbai has many — could well have skewed someone’s chances. [...]

An analysis shows that these tens or hundreds of votes were decisive in almost 50% of the seats. Not that the other candidates posted magnificent wins. Only 14 seats had a respectable winning margin in the range of 6,000 votes. The maximum difference between the winner and the vanquished was just about 8,000 votes, seen in three seats.

The message is loud and clear. You, the individual voter, have more power over the outcome of this poll than any other factor. Unlike in a Lok Sabha or an assembly poll, you need not blame any other party for playing spoiler for your favourite candidate. For all you know, your friendly neighbourhood could end up playing kingmaker in BMC.

But will the vote really change anything? The main tussle in the BMC elections will be between four major political parties, which have teamed up into pairs and shared seats to prevent a fracturing of the vote and thereby better their chances of winning. The alliance between the Congress and the NCP (which has been in power in Maharashtra for the last 12 years) will attempt to unseat, in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, which has been in power in the BMC for the last 17 years.

During the time that these alliances have been in power, the narrative of Mumbai has changed gradually to that of a metropolis in decline. It continues to be the one Indian city that, like New York, never goes to sleep, but its perpetual wakefulness is a weary, ragged one. The government has been unable to make intelligent interventions in the key areas of transport and housing (more than half of the city's population lives in slums, without property rights and simple amenities). Indeed, it might be seen as part of the problem, many local politicians having links to the city's powerful lobby of builders, who are interested in keeping prices high. Red-tapism and the lack of infrastructure has led to Mumbai being seen as business-unfriendly; and the city's cosmopolitan culture has been damaged by an ugly nativist politics enthusiastically sponsored by the powerful local party, the Shiv Sena, which has long railed against infiltration by "outsiders," or economic migrants. It has become common to say, as the prominent Mumbai architect and public figure Charles Correa did recently, that "Mumbai is a great city but a terrible place."

The day before the elections, the influential Mumbai afternoon tabloid Mid-day ran a front-page story with the headline "Mumbai Isn't Happy," offering details of a poll in which more than 28,000 Mumbai citizens voiced their dissatisfaction with the way the city was run. In the Mumbai Mirror, the political columnist Ajit Ranade supplied a lucid exposition of how Mumbai was caught between the governments of city and state, both of which offered a vision and a commitment grossly inadequate to the metropolis's problems and needs:

Ever wondered about the tug of war between the city and the state? The city is a prized possession of the state, and also a golden goose. It generates taxes, jobs, and wealth. But it also has a mind of its own, and occasionally threatens to disown the state. [...] So, however much it tries, the city has to depend on the kindness of the state, and the state has to keep the city in good humour and pacified, with very limited autonomy.

The curious thing is that the city and the state have been ruled by opposing political camps for a very long time. The NCP and Congress combine are running the state for the past 12 years, and the Shiv Sena and BJP are running the city for the past 17 years. This is a remarkable equilibrium. It is like two sumo wrestlers who are content to not push too much to overpower the other.

They remain in a steady arm-lock, careful not to completely trip the other flat on the ground. Could it be that both camps don’t really try to exert and evict the other? Could it be that, contrary to appearance, the spoils of power are equitably shared between city and state?

A groundswell of cynicism about the willingness of Mumbai's politicians to apply themselves to addressing the concerns of the people has generated one of the main emphases of the elections: the need to support independent candidates, often figures who are prominent in the social lives of their neighborhoods and without bosses in a party to answer to. Independent candidates look to the lead of Adolf D'Souza, the sole independent to beat the established political parties in the previous elections in 2007. In an interview published in DNA under the headline "Time citizens took Mumbai back from netas" [politicians], Santosh Awatramani, a spokesman for Mumbai 227, the organization supporting independent candidates in the elections, said:

We in Mumbai 227 believe it is time the people took the city back from the politicians. [...] Why are political parties involved in city elections? Till 1960, political parties did not even participate in the city polls. In 1960, the rules were changed to allow political parties to contest the city polls and no one will deny that Mumbai has been deteriorating since 1960.

Over the past few weeks, we have accumulated a huge amount of data about the city and its requirements. All these will be handy to activists who are working to improve the city. We will continue to work after the elections as activists and ensure a better city for all.

The profiles of both the independents and candidates from political parties show, though, that for all its problems, Mumbai has an exceptionally rich civic culture, grounded by hundreds of thriving business, religious, community associations and NGOs, and a citizenry that voraciously consumes news about itself provided by the city's huge and diverse pool of big and small newspapers. Those citizens interested in the finer details of administration can find a wide range of data about their local representatives and the big issues of the city in the newspapers, and in reports such as the one supplied by the NGO Praja.

Wandering around the city late at night last week, I passed small campaign booths set up in shops that had been taken over temporarily, parades of motorbikes with flags, and small processions of people shouting slogans and beating drums; browsing its newspapers by day, I read dozens of stories about the elections that were rich with local detail.

The elections also have a strong gender angle: 50 percent of the seats are reserved for women, up from 33 percent in 2007. This is in keeping with a line of thought that holds that there are too many barriers to the entry of women in Indian politics, and therefore too little attention in the realms of policy to the needs of women. But on the ground, at least in the short-term, it has resulted in many women being put up for elections who are, so to speak, wives, mothers and daughters before they are something by themselves.

In the BMC elections, as elsewhere in India where reservations for women in elections are in force, often a sitting male legislator, on finding that his seat has become reserved for a woman, ensures that he continues to hold power by proxy by nominating his spouse. Indeed, Mid-day reported that one woman candidate was entirely absent from her own poll campaign: "Instead her husband gleams from every poster and is campaigning on her behalf." Other men who "gave up" their seats for their spouses during the last elections, when their constituencies were reserved, are now claiming them back. This is part of a persistent and deeply entrenched trend in Indian democracy: that of keeping political power "within the family."

But the reservations for women mean that, beginning Feb. 17 -- the day the election results are declared -- women corporators will be in a majority for the first time in the history of the BMC. It isn't just the balance of power in the BMC and within political parties that will be altered by this. On a smaller level, even the rhythms of canvassing across the neighborhoods of Mumbai this time showed a new sensitivity to the needs and routines of women. DNA reported:

Water-filling time in Mumbai’s slums, where the necessary commodity’s scarcity is a burning issue, has forced political parties to schedule the local rally timings in the respective areas accordingly. [...] Raju Korde, an independent candidate from Dharavi, said, “In an area where water comes in the morning, we arrange the rally in the afternoon, and where it is in the afternoon, we have to arrange the rally in the evening.”

With 50% seats reserved for women in these civic elections, every candidate wants to make sure that his/her rally has a large number of women campaigners. Hence, the rally timings have to be adjusted as per their convenience. “Women campaigners also have to cook for their families in the evening. We pay them to be present for the rally, but they give priority to their household duties, and come for campaigning only after finishing everything. We have no option but to adjust our rally timings as per their timings,” said a BJP candidate from Sion.

Will the impending feminization of BMC politics yield a batch of corporators more sensitive to the needs of Mumbai's citizens? Will more independent candidates win, adding their story to a worldwide narrative of citizens seeking a greater say in the political process than that allowed by the party system, and new ideas to the jaded and self-interested ones of the big and often corrupt parties? Will the famed "City of Gold" begin to reverse decades of decay, and right itself in the years to come? If not the answers themselves, at least the beginning of answers to these questions are anticipated by Mumbai this week.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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