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Civic elections: Will Mumbai rescue itself from politics?

The foregoing probably belongs to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. For, it is about politicians who were socially-conscious workers with focus on community, for which they tirelessly worked.

Much before being amalgamated into Hyderabad’s civic body, the then elegant Secunderabad had a mayor, Dr Yashwantrao Thimmaraju. This good man ran his clinic in both mornings and evenings, and in between, conducted the affairs of the city.

He rode to work in his personally-owned car, with a canvas top and wheels with spokes, which he often lent to anyone who needed it in an emergency. It included his driver on personal payroll. While on his way to and from office, or while on a house-call, the general physician stopped his car to inspect the streets for cleanliness.

Prior to being mayor, when he patrolled the streets at nights, the Razakar desperadoes who stalked the city and stoked communal trouble, would skulk away on sighting him. So would their rivals, if any, on the same streets. He carried his reputation of being a good man to deter mischief.

His was an example, probably not isolated, of a person rendering service to the city as its first citizen. He did not run darbars, he did not buy votes, and he did not develop paid-for vote-banks, countenance illegalities and distort the elegant city’s character. The elegance was much a part of Secunderabad’s civic body. All achieved by part-time politics, if running one’s own city on behalf of everyone else who inhabited it, is politics.

Mumbai is making its second, and decidedly stronger pitch to really democratise and depoliticise civic affairs. Reuters

In today’s context of electing new ones to replace the lot of 227 corporators to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), harking back to Thimmaraju’s yore makes sense.

One had thought that electing a citizen corporator from Juhu, Adolf D’ Souza in 2007, would set an example for full-time politicians with not even a part-time interest in the city. Instead, the system so stymied the man that he had come close to opting out of the noble intent of serving the city. Apparently, the culture in which the civic body is steeped: grasping fingers, deals with contractors and co-opting bureaucrats into them — if the latter themselves did not initiate mischief – just did not let him function effectively. People respected him, the system did not.

Almost three weeks from now, when votes are cast on 17 February, would Mumbai, Urbs prima in Indis, show up a momentous event when almost all citizen candidates, as opposed to politicians, are elected? Much like when Sir Pherozshah Mehta, the lawyer, begged leave from an ongoing argument in the Bombay high court to attend a civic body meeting?

Men who ran the city were not full-time politicians but gave its citizens a better city than any other India then had. Even the streets were watered so the dust could stay down; innovation after innovation — gas lamps to trams to much else — was implemented to make the city a better place, and the only ideology was service to the city.

This brings us to the question: When you vote, should your choices be trammelled by the ghost of political ideologies?

For instance, should the decision to build and maintain roads depend on whether the political party you vote for promotes Hindutva, the Ram temple?

Or, the decision to deal with teeming slums be based on the origins of a political party that took birth to oppose Sonia, the Italian in Indian politics, but which is now in bed with the same party it took exception to?

Or, again, should the capacity to use muscle, while spouting a shrill pro-poor ideology, govern the management of streets, and sidewalks crowded by hawkers?

Apparently, when the city has moved to field as many independents as people’s candidates, by spurning the politicos, Mumbai is again on the cusp of a possible change. Provided, those who are not vocal, not quoted in the media, but have a stake in the city, vote with their feet in favour of change — not only to free it from the politicians’ clutches but to create a new mindset that upholds citizens’ ownership of the city.

Would they?
Mumbai is making its second, and decidedly stronger pitch to really democratise and depoliticise civic affairs, to uproot politicians who have class-failed the city.

Loksatta Party, whose slogan is ‘Aware citizen, clean politics’, has about a dozen candidatures announced. It believes in a truly participative government, which even the constitutional amendments have not made a reality. Also in the fray is Mumbai Nagriksatta, led by D’Souza, which speaks of ‘My city, our rule’. Mumbai 227 has about 50 candidates already on its website. A few other independents would be on the ballots too.

With that, Mumbai in dire civic straits ought to have been a city on fire, with the idea of a paradigm shift held prime. If all of them win – or are enabled to win – they would count for more than a quarter of the MCGM’s general body. But that feeling is still elusive, unless of course, it is a silent wave in-the-making.

It has not caused any panic among the politicians. They seem to be counting on possible competition among citizens groups, their excessive reliance on social media and ‘inability to face the realities’. They are especially counting on money-power as their life-saver, instead of fearing a game-changer. At best, they tend to believe, there would be a few citizens in the civic body. So what?

Then, how would Mumbai manage to wrest itself back from vested interests that have every reason to keep the citizens away from positions of power? That not only requires honest, credible people as candidates, and as voters, too. This is truly a test case for Mumbai.

It has to realise that when appointing its drain inspectors, the city has to look for one ideology – a pro-city perspective; nothing else. All other ideologies that matter elsewhere are of no consequence in civic elections.