Recently, a new chief executive of a capital city assumed office on a platform that promised not just transformation of an urban space ridden with violence and corruption but also “open and ethical government.” That would be Muriel Bowser, the new Mayor of Washington, DC, who came into an office in a city that’s crumbling outside its often Instagrammed spaces that host the White House, the Capitol, and other edifices of the US federal government.
Bowser, though, has hardly any name recognition outside the Beltway, just as Jim Watson owns all the celebrity of a Bollywood extra. Watson is the Mayor of another capital, Ottawa, a city so anonymous that most people, including Canadians, often spell it wrong.
Capital cities aren’t actually exciting destinations, unless you happen to Bengalurue in the lobbying business or are a political junkie, though not quite like the most famous of Washington’s Mayors, Marion Barry, who in 1990 was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on drug-use charges.
The energy lies elsewhere, usually in the cities of commerce and culture, that deliver colour amid chaos. In the United States, that would be New York, even Los Angeles. To its north, Toronto. Toronto, itself, is recovering from a four-year addiction to a Mayor with a cocaine habit. That was Rob Ford, who gained the largest mandate in the city’s history, as he boasted, “We’re going to put an end to the gravy train.” His tenure went off the rails and the city snorted in relief as a buttoned-down replacement was elected in the fall of 2014. Ford’s populism may have had its appeal but that bubble popped as he ended in an apology tour. Despite those travails, Toronto still managed to top the Economist’s 2014 ranking for the world’s best city to live in.
All of these North American cities, though, are metropolitan areas without claims to anything greater. New York and Los Angeles (or even Chicago) aren’t even the capitals of their respective states. But they thrive on their unique vibes.
As the mega-decibel campaigns for Delhi’s assembly give way to actual voting, the lack of those vibes may be the national capital’s misfortune — it only appears to exist in a state of schizophrenia, unable to develop as a global city or a province in its own right. While the polls may receive saturation coverage domestically, in these parts there are far more important issues to engage the media, like whether deflated balls helped the new Super Bowl champion’s progress.
If Delhi has recall value, it’s due to the American president’s recent passage through the city, or its status as the centre of national legislative activity in an emerging market that international investors believe is the best bet for the future. While a Mumbai immediately connects with its Bollywood base or as the fulcrum of the country’s financial world and a Bengaluru as the symbol of India’s IT chops, Delhi possibly remains in contention only as another regularly misspelt capital, in Ottawa’s league.
In the Economist survey, at least Mumbai emerged as the top city when it came to cost of living, the lowest among all cities in the list. Delhi can argue it can be cheap too, but that could be easily misconstrued since it has only made news of its own courtesy a brutal gang rape or front-paged photographs of filthy toilets in the Commonwealth Games village.
Delhi’s history is the stuff of legends, but New Delhi has yet to mature. It may no longer be just a glorified village but it’s a glorified municipality. Will it grow into another antiseptic capital or brazen boomtown, or a nice mix of those is the question. But it does need to grow up.
Some may think of the current electoral contest as a drama or a morality play, depending on perspective, but the results will scarcely cause a ripple outside the nation itself, or in enclaves like Edison, New Jersey or Brampton, Ontario. Delhi has to develop a unique character, and I don’t mean its next chief minister.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal