I was a voter and an interested citizen observer on the sidelines of the recently concluded Pune Municipal Corporation Elections. I think they may provide some representative case-studies on issues/learnings for local election issues in many other pockets of urban India.
The Pune local elections are now over and in a sense, it is back to the ‘same-old same-old’. Looks like NCP-Congress combine is all set to retain power. The election voting percentage was a lackluster 51% (close to the voting percentage of the 2007 election). But a few things were different. And it is quite possible that over the medium and long term, these might have big impacts on Pune electoral politics and governance going forward. Maybe I am just hopeful…but then ‘hope’ is an eternal thing!
In this article, I will take a look at the build up to the Pune elections, the results, the aftermath and possible lessons learnt by various participants and stakeholders.
Pune has witnessed an impressive growth over the past decade. From just being a small city known as the cultural capital of Maharashtra and a center of education, the city has witnessed a transformation into a large metropolis. The city is plagued with many of the same issues that are typical in most big cities – traffic, roads, public transportation, garbage, water, education, health, etc.
This election was considered important on quite a few counts. Strategic issues around Pune such as approval of the Development Plan (already pending for many years), public transportation (Metro), etc. were at the forefront. Another important issue was the rise of the independent citizen parties. Since the Janlokpal agitations of the last year, there was expectancy that the city will show much more enthusiasm in voting and in supporting clean candidates. On the political front, the NCP-Congress alliance had announced that were contesting separately. BJP-Sena still had their coalition; the ‘Kalmadi’ factor was a definite negative for the Congress; MNS was a dark horse. NCP was making a clear push to gain unilateral power (just like the neighboring PCMC) and Ajit Pawar had made it his top priority.
The citizen independent parties consisting of PNS (Pune Nagari Sanghatana) and PJA (Pune Janaheet Aghadi) had fielded over 15 candidates. While the task was uphill for them, there was hope that they may be able to make small inroads into the Corporation with a few wins. Many citizens were positive about this new alternative front that provided them with clean, well educated and non-aligned options.
The results, though not a total surprise did have some interesting twists:
- NCP emerged as the single largest party.
- Congress didn’t do as well as expected. Kalmadi factor affected them negatively.
- BJP-SS performance wasn’t spectacular either.
- MNS surprised many by their strong showing, becoming the 2nd biggest party.
- 3 NCP Mayors and ex-Mayors lost.
- No candidate from the citizen independent parties won.
- A few candidates with criminal histories did win in their strongholds.
After Action Review
NCP did partially achieve what it set out for, but will still have to partner with Congress. The few key losses of NCP like that of outgoing Mayor are a sign of anti-incumbency. Congress suffered and outside their strength seats, polled low voting percentages. MNS surprised many with their strong showing – clearly the voter who was looking for choices against the incumbents didn’t migrate to the main opposition; but instead decided to try the 3rd untested option. Raj Thackrey’s personal draw definitely helped the MNS in their campaign. The independent citizen parties fared poorly than most expected. They didn’t win a single seat. They did manage a good showing (in terms of votes polled) in a few contests, but those were clearly not enough. This was a big disappointment for the citizens who were hoping for some change. The fact that even this time, there were candidates with criminal records (fielded by the major parties) who managed to win, further highlights the ‘status quo’ from previous elections.
Frankly, for me the biggest disappointment was the voting percentage: 51% – fairly close to what it was for the last election. I for one had expected that with the overall frustration/anger against corruption, the state of the city, and the incumbents’ performance – citizens would come out in larger numbers and exercise their voting rights. This didn’t happen. This for sure hurt the independent candidates more than the established parties. I can think of many reasons for the poor showing at the voting booth, though not sure which ones are more prominent than the others.
Maybe people are still not ‘upset’ enough to push aggressively for a change. There is a difference between ‘irritability’ and ‘outright anger’ (that drives revolutions). The quality of life for most people in urban India has increased (traffic problems not withstanding) with the 7-8% growth rate. As a result, they maybe get ‘irritated’ with traffic, garbage – but not ‘angered’ enough! Same might be true with corruption. Everyone agrees it is bad – but is it bad enough to incite ‘anger’ and drive change? Apparently not?
The middle-class voter apathy was apparent. If you had observed a typical candidate campaign ‘Sabha’ at a housing society – you would have noticed that the average age of participants was 50+ and often 60+. Where was the middle class youth? How many even knew the candidates who were contesting? I wonder. On the other hand, if you visit a slum or a ‘Vastee’ – the youth there has always been actively involved in supporting their local candidate. These local candidates ‘took care’ of their Vastee. For example, consider this – a middle class person is irritated by illegal encroachments near his house – but often these encroachments support good lively-hood for the youth in the slums – and they back the corporators who may have facilitated these illegal ‘Tapris’ (Shacks). I think (don’t have enough data as yet to back this up..) that when we have an aggregate voting percentage of 50%, the voting percentage in slums is much higher than 50%, and that in the middle class housing societies is much lower. Guess who will have the higher priority? In a sense the electoral process is working fine – just as it is supposed to!
NCP-Congress is all set to retain power. Don’t expect major policy and working changes; and as a result this is a disappointment. Issues such as the pathetic state of public transportation and garbage management will continue to be around, with no immediate solutions in sight. During election, it was easy to pitch the ‘Metro’ as a panacea, but the reality is way out in the future (and that is, after there is an agreement on the design and execution plan).
The NCP has announced its intentions of taking their victory in Pune further by staking claim for the Pune LokSabha seat for the next elections. The rise of MNS is an interesting development, and we will have to see what role they play over the next few years. They are clearly going to be an important player in the next Maharashtra and National elections.
The independent parties need to introspect and come up with their long term strategies for future elections. Organizing citizen parties just a few months before the elections is not adequate. These parties need to be around for a while. They need to build better organization and politicking skills. They have a much tougher task in reaching out to the voters – since they don’t have the brand and money power of the established parties. Hope these parties consisting of smart and well-intentioned folks learn quickly and implement the necessary changes to take on the tough challenge.
A few quick thoughts on the voting process, while the desire to vote should be intrinsic, technology and process changes should definitely be considered to help. Some kind of remote voting options and/or voting at any booth should be considered.
For anyone and everyone who is interested in improving India’s democracy by increasing voting turnouts – much more discussions and analyses are still needed.