On April 23, Delhi will elect 272 councillors to its three municipal corporations. As important as they are to the civic functioning of the city, these elections will also decide the fate of political parties trying to gain a foothold into the city’s politics.
In Delhi, which is the seat of national and state governments and elects its own chief minister, the municipal polls rank the lowest in the election hierarchy. While citizens vote in record numbers for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls, the polling percentage for the civic elections is generally poor, except for the last time when the national capital surprised itself with a 55% turnout.
Elections are rarely fought without a few projected leaders in the fray. The Lok Sabha polls have the bigwigs of the national politics. Assembly elections have the chief ministerial candidates. But in municipal polls, it is difficult to find such faces. We do have big players from national and state-level politics canvassing. But they don’t manage your civic affairs if their parties win.
It is with the same anonymity that the MCD functions between polls. Most citizens, even the active voters among them, can’t name their councillors or tell their municipal wards. Yes, we have mayors. But again, most Delhi residents may not be able to name any of the recent ones. In fact, the recall value has only gone down after the MCD was trifurcated and each of the three corporations started electing its own mayor.
Our mayors are more of ceremonial heads. Apart from presiding over the House, they can suggest new projects, summon officials and even give anticipatory approval to expedite civil work. But 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. Until 1993, a mayor had a fixed five-year term that was often longer than the commissioner’s tenure. All utilities that were once controlled by the MCD monolith are now shared between the Delhi and the Central government and city’s five civic bodies. As I pointed out earlier in these columns, the one-year working tenure of the mayor is so short that by the time their working style starts registering, it is time for a change.
It also makes it difficult to pin down accountability for any civic mismanagement. In the public perception, it is the chief minister of Delhi who presides over the national capital. But in a semi-state with multiple jurisdictions, the powers of the state government are limited. In terms of their reach and the variety of services they provide, the municipal bodies cover more ground than Delhi government. That is a good enough reason to give them strong, empowered leadership.
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 second chief minister. Delhi’s first mayor was freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali. Later, we had popular city leaders such as Kedarnath Sahani and Shanti Desai holding this office.
In all big cities across the world, civic leadership is considered serious business and mayoral posts attract personalities with a vision. Anne Hindalgo of Paris, Sadiq Khan of London, former mayors such as Enrique Penalosa of Bogotá, Rudolf Giuliani of New York or Jaime Lerner of Curitiba are almost as renowned as their prime ministers and presidents.
It is time Delhi and other Indian cities redefined their mayoral institution. Last year, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor placed a private member’s bill in Lok Sabha to amend the 74th Amendment of the Constitution and sought directly-elected and empowered mayors for all cities. In Delhi, outgoing mayors have demanded the extension of their one-year tenure to at least 24 months so they can complete the tasks they take up.
There is no reason why elected leaders should not be vested with all the administrative power to champion aspirations that befit a global city. Making legislative changes requires political support. It is certainly an issue worth taking up in these municipal polls.
An earlier version of this article wrongly said Dr BC Roy went on to become Bengal’s first chief minister. The error has been rectified