Citizen’s perception of public services provided by the rural governance institutions in India is very clear. Indian cities, however, have a far messier governance structure where the larger question of what urban citizens respond to and how their demands are met remains ambiguous
Urban politics in India
Many political scientists argue that the decentralisation of public administration and the introduction of local elected bodies have produced systems of governance that are better able to meet the needs of the poor. From a political perspective, when decentralisation works well, citizens in small communities have the power to hold their elected representative accountable for policy decisions, yielding policy outcomes more uniquely tailored to the needs of these communities.
Yet, the true nature of Indian urbanisation severely departs from this theoretical ideal, with political parties investing heavily in winning at the local level, only to give those elected leaders very limited power, while the State government exercises close control through unelected parallel bodies.
First, local issues do shape contestation in the city, but they alone do not drive the outcome. For political parties, elections to urban local bodies appear to be a preparatory ground for consolidating their positions and widening their support base for winning the Assembly elections. For voters, these elections provide an opportunity to express their views on different political parties struggling to capture the State governments. These considerations, rather than definite political programmes of the respective parties on improving the civic services, motivate the political parties and the voters, respectively.
Second, and as a consequence of the first, “politics” defines the terms of debate in the electoral contestations. Local issues do feature in the campaign, but they seem to play a minor role. Politics then determines both the strategy and mode of campaigning and voters’ behaviour. Such politicisation of local elections to mimic larger questions of ideology and politics of the State restricts the space of local democracy.
Third, non-competing narratives to developing our cities give way to an uninteresting campaign. In Katwa municipality in Bardhaman district of West Bengal, for example, every political party’s manifesto had water supply as a priority, but nobody indicated where from the resources would come to augment water supply. Similarly, in the just concluded MCD elections, most residents interviewed clearly identified garbage collection and disposal as a municipal function which had deteriorated over time, becoming a public health issue.