Cleaner politics and efficient governance seem to the be new mantra for some of India’s contemporary politicians who are looking for an image make-over.
The latest to join the bandwagon is Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. And she has begun at the local level, where it matters to people the most.
On Wednesday, she threatened her party-cadre running the cash-rich Chennai corporation that she will dissolve the civic body if they don’t stop their corrupt ways.
An angry Jayalalithaa has given her councillors, 168 of them, a deadline of end-July. If things don’t change, she said, she will send them home and run the corporation with special officers. She warned them that if the house is dissolved, none of them will get a chance to contest in the re-election.
Her candid and stern warning is also a terrible commentary on the ways municipal corporations are run in India and the deep-rooted decentralisation of corruption. Chennai corporation has an annual revenue in excess of Rs 1300 crores and a surplus (after expenditure) of Rs 90 plus crores.
There have been a series of local media reports on how civic works in the city have come to a standstill because of the demands for bribes and commissions by councillors. They control every nook and corner of the city and even private constructions are not spared from their extortion. Times of India has reported that they ask for 2-5 % commission on development work.
Within eight months of the AIADMK taking over the administration of its corporation, Chennai, which is otherwise known for its civic infrastructure, has plunged into a shambles. The most obvious are the broken down and dug-up roads and heaps of garbage that now dot the cityscape.
Jayalalithaa’s candid talk behind closed doors is her desperate attempt to keep her chances bright for the 2014 elections, and stem the rot of corruption that has spread all the way down to the councils and wards.
Local bodies form the last mile in decentralised governance and their performance is very important to get people’s support. Water and public works, and civic utilities play a critical role in shaping public opinion on governance, delivery of services and efficiency.
Reports indicate that the situation is the same in other corporations and civic bodies in the state and Jayalalithaa is likely to take a similar stand.
Her intervention is significant on three counts: one, the need for bottom up civil society participation in civic governance; two, streamlining local governance and three, tackling corruption at the local level where it matters the most. Interestingly, this phenomenon often escapes the larger discussions of corruption that tend to address only the big ticket graft.
Complaints of rampant corruption by her councillors reached her from the communities through the local media. Although the Chennai corporation mayor is a popular AIADMK leader with a reasonably good image, he has been helpless because the standard practices of graft had been integrated into development works. Reportedly, Jayalalithaa told the councillors that they took money from everywhere possible.
It’s gladdening to note that she is targetting 2014 elections on a plank of clean image and development. She mentioned it in as many words to the councillors. Referring to intelligence reports, she said that the previous DMK regime was routed because of corruption.
If Jayalalithaa is really serious about her 2023 dream of a super state of high growth and no poverty, she needs to urgently check the wild old ways of her politicians and administration. If she is really serious, it will certainly mark the beginning of a paradigm shift.
But unfortunately, it is impossible to clean up by top-down approaches. It is impossible for her to chide her councillors in all the civic bodies in the state. Instead, she needs to strengthen the fundamental systems of governance, including the ways of her MLAs and hold them accountable. If politics is cleaner, the administration will turn around.
Anyway, it’s certain that Jayalalithaa will bank heavily on what she has set out to be in her bid to sweep 2014 parliament elections. With the kind of leadership role she has in mind for herself at the national level, she cannot afford to lose even a single seat.
Good governance, even if it is a fringe benefit of a political vested interest, will be something that nobody will complain about.