The work for citizen groups that want to provide an alternative to political parties in Mumbai has not ended with the BMC elections, but only just begun.
The poor voter response to these groups, among them the Lok Satta Party, Mumbai 227, Mumbai Nagrik Manch and Mumbai Nagrisatta, was neither surprising nor unexpected.
That only one citizen candidate out of 79 won this time (from ward number 227, Colaba) was because the groups got in touch with voters late, and they lacked the resources to establish contact with all voters in their wards within the available time and to make themselves adequately known to their constituents.
The first lesson from the defeat, then, is that the process of interacting with voters for the 2017 elections has to start now. Those who wish to be taken seriously by voters will have to engage with them right away and continue that engagement till the time of the next poll, either as part of a pressure group that keeps tabs on civic works in a constituency or as public-spirited individuals with a deep commitment to Mumbai’s affairs. Waking up a year or a few months before the poll and expecting a victory is unreasonable.
The state assembly election, due in 2014, will be a good opportunity to test just how much progress has been made. It will also bring heightened visibility in the form of voter interaction and media coverage, thus again enabling the forging of a bond with the citizenry.
Lesson number two is that civic issues will have to be taken up by citizen groups in a major way. That is the best way to build contact with people and to slowly convince Mumbaikars that they are not without any decent options in the local elections and that it may not be such a bad idea to vote, after all. Any number of issues — old water pipelines, contaminated water, garbage, the lack of open spaces — are crying for attention, and the more these groups focus on them through ward committees, Advanced Locality Management (ALM) initiatives or plain citizen meetings, the closer they will get to people.
The third lesson is to establish communication with young voters disillusioned with the political class and get them involved in the electoral and political process. This goal is worth achieving for its own sake. At the same time, citizen groups would do well not to rely excessively on young voters, as they seem to have done up until now, but to develop links with people of all age-groups. Even 90-year-olds voted in the just-concluded election; perhaps stressing their example would be a better way of drawing in the young.
If the groups do all of these things, they can more than make up for the lack of resources and money power. It is a myth that money power alone can win you an election. Had that been the case, no citizen candidate would ever have won, but the fact that one was elected in 2002, and another one this time, is proof that a healthy interaction with voters can do the trick.
Just as we need political parties, we need citizen candidates to bring about the necessary balance of power and to come up with new ideas of local governance and administration. The only obstacle in their path can be their own perception of their limitations.