Every once in a while, a politically important person, a corporate leader or a self-appointed guardian of the city strikes the note: Mumbai must have an elected or empowered mayor to improve its governance and quality of life. This is echoed in various socio-political circles until calm prevails. It is also greeted with vociferous protesters who see it as a Machiavellian design to separate the city from Maharashtra.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was the latest to revisit the idea. Mumbai needs an empowered mayor who can take decisions for the city, he said on Monday. He side-stepped the issue of directly electing the mayor on the grounds that it does not ensure empowerment for the mayor. He is right, to an extent. Merely electing a person cannot ensure efficient governance or visionary development of a city. Mumbai elects 269 representatives – 227 municipal corporators, 36 MLAs and 6 MPs.
Fadnavis had earlier mooted the idea of an empowered bureaucrat who would coordinate between the 16-17 different agencies that design, construct and run the city – to a volley of protests. He had also pitched for an empowered committee under the Prime Minister to speed up development work in the city. This was strongly opposed by the Shiv Sena, a reluctant partner in his government.
It is clear that Fadnavis, essentially more urban than rural in his outlook unlike several of his predecessors, has been thinking hard about urban governance, especially that of Mumbai. He wants to improve its governance and set in place new systems, if we were to take him at face value. This agenda may not be without its sub-text: Gain control over as many levers of power as possible that determine the future of Mumbai.
This is a legitimate political goal. But we as Mumbaiites must ask these questions: Do these moves strengthen democratic processes or allow a few unelected people to leverage power, and will the spaces for public participation and consultation shrink or expand. Mumbai’s development and efficient governance is a sine qua non but it cannot be an excuse to snatch away rights and voices of citizens, all citizens including those who do not find space in grand vision documents.
Here’s the catch in Fadnavis’ proposal for an empowered mayor. It would mean an emasculation of powers and authorities vested in a gallery of bureaucrats and ministers, including the chief minister himself. An empowered mayor, such as in London or New York that are often cited as models of urban governance, has heads of a number of utilities and offices reporting to him/her including the police department, education, health and transport. Will Fadnavis, his ministers and bureaucrats be willing to cede power?
It is worth recalling the idea of an elected mayor or an empowered mayor – one does not necessarily imply the other – is not new. Mumbai experimented with the mayor-in-council system in 1998. It was done away with the following year. The demand for an elected mayor, directly accountable to citizens, has surfaced time and again; it was most stridently made 10-11 years ago in the wake of the flood that ravaged the city. Milind Deora, former MP (Congress), has been championing the cause of “Direct Mayor Direct Accountability” since 2013.
In mid-2012, the state cabinet had considered a proposal to vest the mayor in Mumbai and other cities of Maharashtra with additional powers including making him/her the de facto chairperson of the powerful Standing Committee that decides on most matters of importance. At that time, the opposition was mounted by, among others, Fadnavis’ party colleague and city BJP president, Ashish Shelar, citing that it might lead to too much synchronisation of power.
That Mumbai sorely needs a different and better governance structure with a powerful elected official is beyond debate. The Congress governments did not make a move in this direction for the party would have yielded control of the city to political opponents. Fadnavis must start walking the talk.