The spouse of a politician standing for election from one of several constituencies in Bangalore visited our home today to persuade us to vote for her partner. The entourage of about ten or twelve people brought with them not only the customary leaflet requesting us to cast our "valuable votes" in favour of their candidate but also a glossy, colourful, 20-page booklet in Kannada and English.
The brochure, titled "My vision for the … constituency," presented "an overview of the developmental activities" undertaken by the person concerned in the constituency he had earlier represented. "Let works speak rather than words," said the cover.
One page in particular caught my eye. It listed "the specific problems faced by people" in the localities falling within the newly created constituency. The list was apparently based on inputs received during interactions with local residents. Among the promises made to improve life in our particular neighbourhood were:
- Development of undeveloped parks
- An underpass at a specified junction
- Tar roads
- Resolution of water problems
Of these, I can imagine that the last may call for the intervention of an MLA since water supply is a serious and complex infrastructural issue. Some political clout may also be required for the second, again related to infrastructure — although I am not at all convinced that an underpass at the identified junction will make much difference to the chronic problem of extremely heavy traffic in the entire area (some of it due to the unplanned commercialisation of this once-residential area but much of it also caused by vehicles in transit between other parts of the city for want of a better thoroughfare).
But why on earth should a person elected to the state assembly waste his time on local parks? There are government departments and employees whose job it is to develop and maintain parks. If they don’t do their work, the local corporator, ward committee and/or residents’ association should be empowered to get them to do so. Yet development of parks is on the list of issues that the candidate has promised to address in every locality within the constituency.
Similarly, tarred roads are among the most basic requirements of a city (not to mention a state capital that is constantly being touted as a hi-tech city) — not manna from heaven that can be secured only through the kind offices of a state-level political representative. The city authorities have schemes and budgets (some flush with funds from the likes of the World Bank) to ensure decent roads. If citizens are still struggling to make their way along so-called roads that in some places in our neighbourhood resemble the surface of the moon, the engineers and contractors charged with executing road works should be made accountable by the officials and elected representatives whose duty it is to oversee the city’s development.
None of the really serious issues affecting the neighbourhood, which require decisions and action at the policy and planning level, are addressed in the booklet. Among these are drainage and sewage, which clearly need to be addressed together in view of the pathetic state of the so-called storm water drain that runs through the area, corroding everything in and around its path, in addition to emitting a vile smell.
Some citizens obviously and understandably think it is important to use the opportunity of an election — even a state election — to improve a few things in their neighbourhoods. But only those who can’t see the wood for the trees would be satisfied with such small pickings. It will surely be more effective in the long run to insist that each official cog in the wheel of the city (and the state) performs its appointed task? Otherwise bureaucrats at various levels will get away with not doing their jobs and politicians will get away with not doing theirs.
Could the promise of roads, parks and flyovers be the gifts-in-exchange-for-votes for the middle class akin to the television sets, saris and water pumps that serve as bait for the working class? Politics in our country remains thoroughly feudal with political office seen primarily in terms of its ability to amass wealth for the elected official and in exchange for which a few favours are promised and most often remain undelivered. The politician is grateful to the party for having given him or her a ticket. S/he owes the party, s/he symbolically owes the electorate but most of all s/he owes the various interests that have enabled him or her to run and stay in office.
A more serious question is, however, raised by the local focus of candidates’ promises. Have our politics become so thoroughly centralised that policy is not a local or even regional matter but one determined by elites in political parties, government bureaucracies, think tanks, national and international businesses and foreign “aid” agencies? After all how often do we see politicians invited to the civic forums routinely held in Bangalore to discuss the various problems afflicting their constituents? Do we not all presume that the politician is playing a different game, not easily held accountable and, most pertinently, least effective as a means of remedying the situation? Is the politicians’ local focus at election time simply acknowledging the reality that policy initiatives (as opposed to specific schemes that bring policy to fruition) are undertaken at higher levels? In this context the promise of tarred roads may be interpreted as the politician’s wager that that he can bear down on the relevant government departments to ensure they do their work in a specific instance. If the centre of gravity of policy making has shifted away from politicians, what are the implications for the legislative process and for the democratic process more generally?