By Mahesh Vijapurkar

Ten major cities, including Mumbai, are to have their civic elections in a few weeks from now and Dr YashwantraoThimmaraju, a mayor of Secunderabad comes to mind. Over half a century ago, he would conduct his clinic twice a day and in between squeeze in a visit to his municipal office. He used his self-owned car; the civic body did not issue official cars then.

Running the civic affairs of the then elegant city – Hyderabad had a separate municipality - was not incidental, but perhaps because they were simpler times, it did not need his full-time preoccupation. It seemed so apolitical a duty that there were no hangers-on, no political patronage. It all seems like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not – so strange in these times when cities don’t count but politics around it does.

None of the ten cities that are going to polls in Maharashtra are well-run cities. Any social audit would reveal that the citizen is short-changed on every count: extent of services to their quality because civic bodies have become platform for running politics as money-making. And these are done under the pretence of furthering the ideologies of their parties. The parties are an excuse, a vehicle for venality. An ordinary person becomes rich within the first two years of being a corporator.

It is not that the citizens do not know that their cities are being messed up, and do not even pretend that voting in a party or voting out another would make a difference. Any change normally brings in much of the same, city after city, except for a rare town or two. The citizens’ reconciliation that things won’t change is the reason why cities are getting worse though there is talk of development which are best are haphazard.

The politics part – which party would fight the polls alone, or opt for an alliance, for instance – is engaging the citizens in these ten cities especially in Mumbai which has India’s richest civic body but underspends its budget to poorly run a city. Who would better the city is hardly a thought though each political party says they can. Irony is nobody has asked them that! Rectitude is hardly a matter in the citizens ‘minds, it would seem.

It is as if the citizen sees it as a game of political gladiators and the winner takes the loot and throws a crumb or two at the spectators – an uncleaned street, irregular water supply, poorly manned and provisioned hospitals et al. The relevance of any ism – Marxism, or Hindutva, or regional identities – to run the city affairs has never been discounted. It is forgotten that state and central governments are run on representational basis, civic bodies are “self-governed”. And locally, at that.

The voter in a civic body is done with his duty the moment he leaves the polling booth and thereafter has just no say because the elected becomes the high and mighty who only dispenses patronage. If he or she intervened to help set right a civic wrong, it is not a mandated duty being done but a favour rendered. The citizens have almost concluded that they are not stakeholders.

If a handful of public-minded citizens contest the elections as “citizens’ candidate” as happened once in a while, it becomes the stuff of headlines but not encouragement by fellow citizens. Casting a vote for them is considered wasting it. They wonder if such Independents would be allowed to function by the political corporators in the civic body? No, they are not, and Mumbai has seen only one such Independent, and another supported by a political party in the past one decade.

Such citizens’ collectives are by nature amorphous. They have financial issues. They apparently seem to have another weakness which is the inability to provide political patronage being apolitical. Patronage is what voters seem to seek to have some rules bent for their personal issues like regularising an illegalstructure or allow a new encroachment. Not an improvement to the city.