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Towards a more civil civic arrangement

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
June 23, 2010 14:43 IST
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If public-spirited citizens not career politicians could be elected to civic bodies, then our nation's cities would be much better governed, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Mayawati's politics is of the worst kind. She has used caste, which of course most politicians do these days, but not strengthened the Dalits or empowered them. Tokenism and totems -- her own, her mentor Kanshi Ram's, innumerable statues of Ambedkar does not absolve her of her poor politics not does it absolve her of the emptiness of her politics. Aggrandisement and amassing wealth without any visible, or even a pretence of a business, is the other feature of her politics. Reports out of Uttar Pradesh, now or in her earlier tenure as a chief minister make no reference to what can be called good governance.

But, having said that, one move of hers which in recent times deserves commendation -- the decision to bar people contesting civic elections on party lines to the civic bodies of towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh. It would have enormous implications if it means de-politicisation of civic elections which is the time when people decide on their representatives from the wards, who in turn would decide how to keep the streets clean, the water supply plentiful and uninterrupted, and keep the cities working to a clear order.   It actually can be a game-changer if she ensures that civic bodies remain sans politics. The depoliticising of civic elections is an example which her states could well follow, with some provisos.

That, knowing Mayawati, could be the least of her concerns. My guess is that by delinking civic polls from the political parties, she has broken the stride of the rival parties because once the votes are counted it would be easier to co-opt any winner who wants to be a part of the power structure to join the larger bandwagon. That would be rather unfortunate because instead of bringing in a larger non-political involvement in running the local bodies, utter confusion may creep in for there would be no one holding a party whip.  There can be chaos.

Not that there is no chaos in civic bodies across the country, because if not in the deliberative body of the cities and towns, the cities and towns are themselves chaotic where rules made in the past with due deliberation have been given a go bye to underwrite the vested interests of the contractors and builders lobbies, where corruption has become rife and people and civic amenities comes last.

Uttar Pradesh is not the only exception; it has a peer in every city. If there are other exceptions, I would like to hear about them and be surprised.

Technically speaking, local bodies like gram panchayats and the panchayats are supposed to be out of the clutches of political parties but they do file their candidates, use symbols which are not owned by political parties and when the ruling set up has to be lined up, they are of either politicians or political affiliates of the major political parties. In the towns and cities, people who are good, public-spirited individuals shy away from even civic bodies because it has been messed up by politicians. Political parties have ideologies and where is the need for ideologies when running the city?

Where do Marxism, Hindutva, secularism, cultural nationalism, regional and sub-regional come into play when the civic needs are assessed, properties taxed, octroi collected to fund the development targets are set and executed? How does any ideology which divides the nation help lay better roads, make the civic employees work to a purpose? It is a simple task of working towards the common weal.

The one ideologies that all town and city folk would like the city fathers to own up to is 'clean city, incorrupt city' which would be possible only if local politicians do not have to look up and after taking their own cuts, send the loot upwards to their bosses.

My vision is of city or town governance where a school teacher, or even the local green grocer, even an educated housewife who has ideas, who has the spirit, the time and inclination to deal with local issues -- which no serious politician in the upper tiers of the power structure gives a tinker's curse about -- should be able to stand up, convince his neighbourhood that he would give a best shot at sorting out the problems that confronts them and get elected.

It would not call for money to be spent, it does not call for bribes to be sought because expensive elections were fought, it does not call for getting cosy with the contractors, and being a people's man, and not a party's, he would have greater autonomy and reach to all sections of the voters, and their needs.

In my younger days, I had seen our family doctor, Yashwantrao Thimmaraju as a mayor of Secunderabad. He ran his clinics, took his personal car to work and back, and before reaching his office, inspected as many spots in the city as possible and was accessible to people who came with complaints, not those who sought favours.  Not a new sofa was added, not once was his self-owned home once painted during his tenure. He was simple, he remained simple and people respected him. During troubled times, Muslims gave way when he walked the streets, and Hindus with sticks melted away when they saw him. He was, you see, not a politician, but a mayor. I am looking for such people.

Though elected by people who may not be political in the sense, as ordinary citizens without an ideology, the politician city father tends to forget them because he cuts the bait and the leaves the fish to flounder amid pot holes, clogged drains, hawker-occupied sidewalks, open manholes, et al.

He soon gets once removed and becomes not an official of the town or the city for serving all the citizens but a dispenser of patronage and using the political connections, operates businesses or becomes sleeping partner with other vested interests.

No wonder, as in Navi Mumbai, entire extended families get elected to the civic body with a finger in virtually every pie. Then the focus shifts from civic issues and more importantly, the people. Town after town, city after city are falling a prey to such urban political clans because, as political leaders in Uttar Pradesh lamented, the civic elections are the training grounds and springboards for higher tiers of politics, which in India, is designed to divide, not unite and work.

It has never been said that good politics can be played in towns and cities and then carry a positive culture upwards. In the absence of such assertions, sadly, it means, all bad things are learned, ingrained into the DNA and then carry it forward and up to other legislative bodies.

Already, it is clear that an ordinary person, who gets elected to a civic body with the blessings of political parties, soon acquire the swagger of the arrogant and shift from a tiny home to a bungalow or a swanky flat, own fleets of cars, have hangers on at their beck and call, the very epitome of venality.

I have known persons who, within months of getting elected to a municipality, became rich and we are amused that members to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are crorepatis. This has not come as bakshish from the people, which Mayawati implies is gifts from her constituents who feel liberated under her regime because of her politics, but because of politics and its misuse.

At least at the civic elections, I would like to see more civil form of politics where the people, not their representative matter. That is possible if the representative is truly, in every sense of the term, of and from the people for the people, not one who has to kowtow to political bosses and ideologies. 

Civic bodies, instead of ways and means of improving peoples' lives, spend time on machinations that make the councillors rich, the city's they are supposed to govern, be damned.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based analyst and commentator.

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