Many of them have spent years holding politicians to account. They have camped outside government offices for hours and filed RTI petitions that went on to shame the government. Now, the tables have turned and these ‘unusual candidates' will be featuring in the upcoming local body elections.
“As an activist, you are always sitting outside the system and hoping something will happen. It is time some got into the system,” says Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO which works of traffic and transportation issues.
Contesting for the post of councillor for the Kottivakkam ward in the Greater Chennai Corporation, Mr.Cherubal says the best advertisement for a candidate like him is the current state of affairs. “I ask people to look around. Look at the roads and the garbage collection system. If the Chennai Corporation's budget of 1,900-odd crore is anything to go by, each of 155 wards in the city would have got around Rs.12 crore for local development. Was the money meant for you spent well?”
Since they have a reasonable idea of how the government works, candidates like him say the primary reason for contesting the elections is to highlight the level of governance deficit which exists.
One of Mr.Cherubal's promises is to set up a ward-level complaint management system that would have an online portal ‘fixmystreet.com'. Anyone can take a photo and upload it to the site and action would be taken.
E.Sridharan, who is the T.Nagar Residents' Welfare Association nominee for councillor, has promised to set up a call centre. A software professional, who runs his own firm, Mr.Sridharan says: “In the last 20 years we've been electing political parties and nothing has happened.”
Residents' association belonging to 78 streets in T.Nagar came together under an umbrella organisation to field a candidate for the first time. Mr.Sridharan says that residents have been completely sidelined from issues concerning local governance. “Especially in an area such as T.Nagar, the nexus between traders and politicians has severely undermined the role of residents,” he adds.
Another contestant in the fray with the backing of a residents' welfare association is V.Santhanam, who is contesting in the Pallavaram Municipality. He has been an activist for years, drawing attention to a host of civic issues in the southern suburbs.
Then, there are those like RTI activist V.Gopalakrishnan, who is contesting to force elected officials to be more transparent. “I have promised to declare all my assets and also that of all ward-level government officials if I am elected. I am also campaigning for the Jan Lok Pal bill.” Besides the first-time political entrants, there are also a number of candidates who have recently quit a party. Kuppal G. Devados, an erstwhile DMDK member, has promised to set up a special helpline for garbage clearance. Well-known in Mandaveli for his unconventional methods, he quit the party in a huff after proclaiming: “Captain Vijayakanth ditched me. From now, the only captain I'll show respect to is Dhoni.”
Their reasons for contesting may vary, but they all insist that the ward is the most important level of government. They say that sustainable systems must be set up that would effectively address the dysfunctional streetlight or the menace of mosquitoes or garbage problem. Besides, as Mr.Cherubal says: “It is also a barrier that needs to be broken. Middle class and poor people who really want to do something good for their locality must start having the belief to contest.”