Elections are rarely fought without a few projected leaders in the fray. In the recent Delhi civic polls, the Congress lost to the BJP. But it was impossible for the voters who had turned out in record numbers to put a face to one party’s defeat and another’s victory.
It is with the same anonymity that the MCD functions between polls. Yes, we have a mayor. But even the quiz buffs may not be able to name any of the recent ones. One wonders if the recall value will improve now that the MCD has been trifurcated and each corporation will have its own mayor by May 2.
In Delhi, the mayor is more of a ceremonial head and has limited powers. Apart from presiding over the House, she can suggest new projects, summon officials and even give anticipatory approval to expedite civil work. But the mayor is not the head of the administration. The Commissioner, an executive officer selected by the central government, takes all administrative decisions. A mayor cannot draw up budget plans, hire and fire department chiefs or veto policies.
What makes the mayoral position particularly inconsequential is the tenure of the post. Till 1993, the mayor had a fixed five-year term that was often longer than the commissioner’s tenure. The powers of the deliberative wing were gradually stripped since 1958 when the MCD came about. This monolith once controlled all utilities but now the same work is shared among at least 12 agencies. The one-year working tenure of the mayor is so short that by the time her working style starts registering, it is time for a change.
In the past, we have had a rich tradition of mayors. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose occupied the post in Kolkata. So did Dr BC Roy who went on to become Bengal’s first chief minister. Delhi’s first mayor was none other than Aruna Asaf Ali. Then we had the likes of Kedarnath Sahani and Shanti Desai. But somewhere along the way, Delhi somehow lost the plot.
But world over, civic leadership has remained serious business. On May 3, a day after Delhi concludes its mayoral elections, London will choose its next directly-elected mayor. Referendums will be held in other cities of the UK to decide whether to have a directly-elected mayor in the future.
London’s sitting mayor Boris Johnson is one of the most recognisable faces in British politics today. Challenging him is former mayor Ken Livingstone, a British Labour party leader, who gave London the Oyster card, the smart ticketing system for public transport, and introduced congestion tax to reduce vehicular traffic in the city’s central district.
In New York, Rudolf Giuliani rebuilt the city post 9/11 attacks and his zero-tolerance policy brought street crime under control. His successor media tycoon Michael Bloomberg became popular with his NYC311 telephone line, a non-emergency helpline that puts callers in contact with the city administration.
Closer to home in Seoul, mayoral elections are the most important non-national election and the mayor is often considered future presidential material. President Lee Myung-bak is a former Seoul mayor.
The MCD needs to redefine the mayoral institution. Elected leaders should be vested with all administrative power to champion aspirations that befit a global city. This will also attract personalities with a vision. Really, can a city’s tomorrow be secured when its mayors have no political future?