Why India?s cities should vote: Civic engagement in the world?s largest democracy

By Tridib Bhattacharya

In the 2015 Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) election, voter turnout in Bengaluru was 49%. The 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election saw 55% of the electorate exercise their franchise, while the corresponding numbers for the 2017 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) election and the 2016 Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) election were 54% and 45% respectively. These are indeed disappointing numbers, but most do not realise the extent of their significance.

Crumbling or simply non-existent infrastructure is a commonly heard grouse among residents of India’s big cities, largely among the middle and upper-middle class. But it is precisely these citizens who do not turn out to vote on election day. In fact, elections held on Fridays and Mondays often serve as an excuse for urban professionals to plan weekend getaways. One of the basic principles of a representative democracy is that voters actively choose their elected representatives, and these representatives take decisions in accordance with the voters’ interest. The higher the voter turnout, the better the democracy is considered to be functioning, and this is where India’s cities lag.

Most civic problems that city residents complain about come under the purview of the local councillor (sometimes also called the corporator), who is elected in the municipal elections, not the local member of parliament or member of legislative assembly. These basic improvements cannot be top-down decisions; rather, they must come from the grassroots level, whether the demand is for better roads, adequate streetlights or hygienic waste disposal.

There is indeed invariably much more fanfare that surrounds elections at the state and national level. While party preferences frequently determine which candidate citizens vote for, with the larger aim of seeing the leader of the party assume office as chief minister or prime minister, party leanings should not impair one’s vision in local body elections. At the end of the day, it is about the candidate who is the most competent choice for a specific locality. It is not always easy to make such judgements, but taking a little effort to review every candidate before each local body election may bring five years of committed efforts to improve the standard of living as its reward. And it is now not too hard for one to find out more about the candidates contesting an election. The digital magazine Citizen Matters, which also contains coverage on Chennai and Kolkata, curated detailed profiles for every ward in the run-up to the 2015 BBMP election, while the Bangalore Political Action Committee even went to the extent of endorsing candidates.

It is only logical that we should hold our elected local representatives accountable for their actions. The 227 councillors of Mumbai’s BMC, the country’s richest municipal corporation and among Asia’s wealthiest civic bodies, collectively control a staggering Rs 27, 258 crores (the 2018-19 BMC budget). If the recent Mumbai rains which brought the city to a standstill thanks to potholed, caved in and flooded roads are anything to go by, what is happening with this money is anyone’s guess. One would have expected that after the devastating floods of 2005, the BMC would have learned its lesson with the city’s antiquated drainage system.

Every vote counts

As the wards of municipal corporations and municipalities are smaller than Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies, victory margins in municipal elections are, intuitively, also smaller. In the 2015 BBMP election, the Bellandur ward, which saw the second lowest voter turnout, had 65% of its eligible voters registered, numbering 60,459 citizens in total, according to citizen advocacy group Whitefield Rising. Only 40% of these registered voters turned out to vote, a mere 23,925 voters. Even higher was the number of eligible voters who were unregistered, at 33,271. And the victory margin of the winning candidate was 7,691 votes, just 2.7% of the total eligible voters. This was still much higher than the victory margin in 2010, a mere 374 votes.

If this proves anything it is that every vote does indeed count.

Bellandur is an ideal example as the ward is home to a sizeable village and a number of Bengaluru’s upscale residential communities, representing the extreme income inequality seen in many of India’s large cities. In 2015, the 26% of eligible voters who were registered and voted were likely largely from the village, as candidates would find it much easier to pander to their concerns. Judging by the worsening quality of major roads, development work has taken place only in the village, if at all. When candidates know that the big apartment complexes and gated communities will not turn out to vote, it is understandable that they do not allot funds to satisfy the needs of these citizens. The irony is that just a few of these communities have the potential to swing the election in the ward with their collective votes.

Concurrently, it is true that there are many who wish to vote but cannot due to the technicalities involved. A move from one ward to another or to a new address within the ward itself, and misspelt names on voter rolls are common hindrances. Perhaps spending some time on the National Voters’ Services Portal website would be helpful in this scenario. The website includes instructions for new voters as well as provisions to correct entries in the electoral roll and search for election booths and booth level officers, among other features. Relevant forms can be filled out online, after which individual applications can be tracked. Urban residents often take the easy route and voice grievances about their localities with friends and family and on social media, but actually registering to vote and ensuring your name is in the voter list takes some amount of effort, which is the minimum cost one should be able to bear for performing one’s civic duty.

Many, of course, find our politicians to be severely lacking. Indeed, recent election campaigns have seen no mention of pressing issues such as the need to protect the environment, the education of children and the safety of women. However, using these discouraging trends as justification to stay disengaged is no excuse. Civic apathy is a flawed attitude, and will not solve any of our problems. It is, in a way, the citizens’ responsibility as well to make political leaders care for them. Engaged voters will result in engaged political leaders, at least to an extent.

Getting the vote

In its paper on governance and development, the UN System Task Team on the post-2015 UN Development Agenda referred to democratic governance as “a process of creating and sustaining an environment for inclusive and responsive political processes and settlements”. The adjectives “inclusive” and “responsive” are crucial here; only if they hold completely true can India move towards having accountable institutions of governance. This will not only increase efficiency in governance, but will also further levels of social capital, which, as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out back in 1986, can lead to crucial economic gains. Exercising one’s democratic right is in everyone’s favour. Not only is it important for material development, but citizen participation also contributes to overall nation building and progress towards an inclusive society.

Naturally, simply getting all citizens of India’s cities to vote will not miraculously solve our problems. There are a countless number of well-known and widely documented issues with the system, from excessive bureaucracy to corruption. There is no one-step solution to ensure that elected representatives behave responsibly. Voting is only the first step, but it is a step in the right direction. We should not underestimate its ability to make a positive difference. Increasing voter participation has been shown to have a positive relationship with Human Development Index scores in India. Democracy is undoubtedly flawed, but what there is no doubt about is the fact that a significant amount of power lies with the people.

As the American magazine editor and theatre critic George Jean Nathan said, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote”. For the benefit of the country, one can only urge the voters play their part.

Tridib Bhattacharya is a student of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program.