Make them take sides

I spent sometime during the past week reading about a number of candidates in various election wards of BBMP. I have got email from some of them, and sms-es from some others. I’ve watched them walk by on the streets in my neighbourhood and in other areas. I’ve been reading the daily news reports about the elections that every paper is now carrying. I’ve seen the profiles posted on websites, including the one I moderate. And occasionally, I’ve watched a few minutes of campaign coverage and talk shows on TV.

I encourage you to do all this too, because there’s something interesting happening. I think many candidates are afraid.

They are afraid of the complexity of the issues, they are afraid of the voters, and they’re afraid that the familiar old turf of municipal elections – last held 8 years ago – may not be arena in which they’re doing battle now. Eight years is a long time in a city like Bangalore. Two million people have moved in since then, many of them from out-of-state. The economy has doubled, and people are more assertive in their expectations. There’s an RTI law too in effect now.

All this has made electioneering much more chancy, and you can see that if you simply spend some time with the candidates. Many are like headless chickens running around not know where the next difficult question is going to come from, and what they should be saying in response. The parties have done very little due diligence in giving tickets. Selecting the candidate has mostly been a combination of local networks and deals (even one or two BJP-Congress local deals to keep independents out!) made in the haste of the court battles and election announcement. As a result, they’re totally unprepared, and have no agenda other than to win.

But winning isn’t getting easier. The old folks sitting in the audience at the candidates’ debate at Sarakki’s Mahatma Gandhi School on Saturday no doubt noticed the aspirants hemming and hawing. As long as the talk stayed within the old boundaries – roads, drains, toilets, parks, and other civic stuff – they uniformly promised the same things. They, and they alone, could and would fix it. Then I threw in the question about Akrama Sakrama, and suddenly they were all on edge.

One candidate, who’d been eager to be the first to answer most questions until then – usually saying very predictable things – didn’t even bother to reach for the mike. The others, by now used to handing him the mike for his first crack at a question, almost thrust it on him this time. He clasped it in front of him and said, "really, we should not say anything about Akrama Sakrama. Let the bill be passed, and then we’ll take a view on whether it is right or not."

Fear. You sit in an open platform and look out at a bunch of voters who’ve become weary of the same old stuff. You think to yourself, ‘the ward sizes are small, and the margins of victory will be narrow’. You see in the papers that some RWAs and independents are running strong campaigns themselves, bidding goodbye to the Congress and BJP. You’re mentally counting the money you’re spending on this campaign. And all of that adds up one thing – you’re afraid you may be making a bad bet. Even if not this time, soon.

One of the people in the audience even got up and warned the candidates: "more of us will vote, so you better be prepared to serve the public for a long time". A lot of people clapped. That’s normal. What’s not normal is that the warning was real.

Tomorrow again, and every day after that until the election campaigns end, I’ll go to more debates. And I will keep adding to the questions. Not just Akrama. Should bus board signs be in English also? Should government schools teach poor children in English? Should small contractors be banned and all project works given to large ones who can handle them? Should the villages outside Bangalore where our trash is dumped be paid by the tonne for accepting this waste?

I’m tired of the usual questions, and the usual answers. I already know the usual answers. No one will say he won’t fix the parks and schools. No one will say she won’t keep the roads clean. No one will say they won’t consult the public on important issues. Those things aren’t new. I want to hear them say what they will do about the harder choices. I want them to take sides on the issues, so that I can take sides too – either with them because I agree with their views, or against them because I don’t.

I think we’ll get our city back if we do this.  ⊕

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About Ashwin Mahesh 96 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.