Urban politics in India: blurring the lines on what is local

A residential colony in northwest Delhi in the run-up to the municipal corporation elections, in April 2017.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma/THE HINDU

In the lanes of a Block in Mangolpuri, an old man points us to a board outside what once was a community toilet complex. The board reads, Site for Baraat Ghar, Estimated Cost ₹140 Lakhs. “The Japanese had constructed the toilet, and after their contract got over, people took everything away,” laments the same man, who considers himself a social worker. “The previous MLA promised a Baraat Ghar (Community Centre) from his MLA quota, but this land belonged to MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi),” he added. “No, it is DDA (Delhi Development Authority) land and not the MCD,” offered a passerby. “There is some problem between the MLA and the Councillor, and only a board was put up, and nothing since has happened,” says the social worker.

Just beyond the block is a Jhuggi Jhopri (squatter settlement) cluster where heaps of garbage mixed with sludge drawn from drains and leaking water taps marks the entry to the settlement. Although he has no formal position, the Pradhan or cluster leader is ushered in to meet us. “He maintains a register of the owners in this cluster and negotiates on our behalf,” says a man standing next to the Pradhan. Mangolpuri is one of the areas in Delhi that voted last month for a new city government.

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. In Delhi, this becomes all the more evident, where in spite of the cacophony around the importance of the election, the fact remains that we still don’t know who the three Mayors of Delhi will be. Perhaps worrying about this is of no use, given that the tenure of a Mayor in Delhi is only for one year!

Indeed, the question of the broadening of the political spectrum was one of the main ideas behind India’s decentralisation policy, yet the central issue of local power — political or otherwise — and incentives for citizen participation in urban areas have remained ambiguous. This is in contrast to the local governments in rural India, which, though also limited in their functionality, have significantly more power than their urban counterparts. During our field work on understanding electoral behaviour in West Bengal, rural citizens associated with their local representatives more closely and also scrutinised their work more critically. Given this knowledge and perception of local provisions and working of the officials, rural voters can make reasonable inferences on the functioning of rural local government.

In the presence of a limited functional domain, the question of how citizens assess their representatives in the urban context has remained a rather unexplored topic. Inequality in the city leading to differentiated access in services is also leading to different ways in which citizens in poorer and “unregularised” areas access the state. In Mangolpuri, for instance, the social worker and the Pradhan have been working on bringing public services to the people. As intermediaries, their influence on citizens, and particularly on their electoral participation, remains ambiguous.

Is there a local agenda?

Does State politics subsume the local agenda or is it the personality cult of national and State leaders that tilts the outcome? The answer to this question lies somewhere in the middle. A study to delve into these issues was conducted by the Centre for Policy Research in four Indian cities. This study along with brief recent fieldwork preceding the MCD elections reveal some trends.


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. Yet, neither of the three major parties offered anything beyond shutting or closing the landfills. Indeed, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been called a class-based urban political party, showed no imagination on a possible road map — something which it did so effectively in its 70-point action agenda before the 2015 Assembly elections.

The citizen-state relationship in terms of jurisdiction and access in Indian cities is complex. As India urbanises, acknowledging the formal and informal interactions and incorporating them to understand local politics can provide valuable insights into our urbanisation trajectory.

Bhanu Joshi is a public policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 1:28:07 PM |

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