If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012 may be the year of the educated political candidate. For the first time in the history of the city's civic elections, citizen groups are fielding and even headhunting educated professionals who have undergone a thorough background check, in a bid to save a crumbling city from apathetic governance. Yoshita Sengupta meets some of these potential changemakers to find out what broke the camel's back

On Thursday, 3 pm, when this writer called 29 year-old Pankaj Khanvilkar, an HR manager with a financial company and an MBA graduate, he was in the local train compartment of a CST-bound train. Politely, in polished English, he asked if he could return the call in 30 minutes.

I come from a simple family. My father is a farmer in the village.
It is important that the people who don't have party loyalties,
who have given up, make their choice this time. They have to
believe that we are one of them and not above them.

- Menanath Gade
28 year-old assistant director of Marathi films and television
serials, at his house in Dattatray chawl, Ghatkopar (W).
Pic/ Sameer Markande

He kept his promise. On Wednesday, 5.10 pm, 25 year-old Benaifer Daruwala, assistant to the director of a garment brand and mother of a two year-old daughter, made a similar request. Menanath Gade, a 28 year-old assistant director of Marathi films and television serials, however, was idle at his house in Dattatray Chawl number 4 in Ghatkopar (W).

All three are amongst the independent candidates who have decided to take seasoned corporators and their inexperienced, puppet wives and daughters who are standing from seats reserved for women head on  at this year's civic elections. They claim that their strengths are education, a clean police and social record and their agenda to save the "crumbling infrastructure" of an increasingly-unlovable city.

Nothing is done
What made them take the leap? The answers are predictable. Apathy of civic bodies, corruption, bad roads and water supply, filth, no garbage disposal facilities, a degrading public transport system, lack of open spaces, poor education facilities in municipal schools... the list, they tell us, is long.

(L to R) D Sukumar, Archana Avlani, Chandrika Vora and Jaipal
Shetty. Pic/ Sayed Sameer Abedi

"One of the streets in our area (Ward No 71, Andheri) doesn't have lights. When we approached the sitting corporator with the issue she said streetlights cannot be installed there because there is a nullah that flows below the spot. When we asked how the Bandra Worli sealink was so well lit up, she had no answers.

She refused our request even before consulting with the BMC engineers. At night, trucks are parked illegally that serve as a cover for alcoholics and drug addicts . There have also been several chain snatching incidents. The citizens have complained but nothing has been done," says Daruwala. It is no better elsewhere. "The BMC schools in the area don't have good staff. People have been forced to shift their children to private schools," Gade, who is contesting from Ward No 119, Ghatkopar  (W) points out.

"My father is a farmer in the village. When I told my family, they thought I was joking and was up to some drama with my theatre and acting group. Finally when they realised I wasn't joking, everyone was up till 4 am discussing it. They asked me why people would vote for me," he recalls.

Campaign strategy
All the independents are depending on word-of-mouth publicity by close friends, colony residents, groups and personal accounts on Facebook and twitter and elementary pamphlets. For most candidates the expenditure on elections will not exceed Rs 1 lakh. Compare that to the crores local politicians spend on their election campaigns, and you get what they are up against. "Young boys in my area work in political party offices. When they heard that I was contesting the elections they came and asked me how I was planning to get that kind of money. I will fight the election with whatever little I have," says Gade.

Benaifer Daruwala at the launch of Parivartan. Pic/ Rane Ashish

For Daruwala, funds will come from contributions from about eight to 10 concerned friends. Khanvilkar on the other hand says, "I anyway spend one month's salary every year on buying books, bags, stationary, dictionaries and medical supplies for about 20 to 25 underprivileged children. I am educated, have a good job that pays well and can afford to spend a little more money to bring about this change and make things better."

And what are these freshers banking on for votes? Educated, middle-class voters, tired of the administration's apathy. "In the 2007 elections, only 12,000 out of over 50,000 voters in the area cast their vote. The aim will be to target them and the youth, who often feel that their vote doesn't count,"  says Khanvilkar. Gade adds, "It is important that the people who don't have party loyalties, who have given up and who don't vote, make their choice this time. They need to give us a chance. They have to believe that we are one of them and not above them."

Clean water, better roads
Daruwala's main aim is to provide clean and sufficient water supply to her area, find an alternative for better garbage disposal and concentrate on the quality of municipal schools and road safety. Her primary aim however, is to promote a culture of advanced locality management (ALM)and decentralise work at the ground level. To that end, on Wednesday at 8.30 pm, she along with residents of her area, formally started Parivartan, an ALM to deal with these issues, irrespective of whether or not she wins the election. "The core group supporting me comprises laywers, engineers, architects, etc. They are experts in their field, who can make suggestions and take decisions that will be best suited for the ward with the consensus of the people."

Gade's priority, he says, will be to set up a public library and a better schooling system. He also wants to put an end to the malpractices in ration shops. But his main aim is to mobilise and unite the aimless youth in the area. "I know that good and bad people will stick to me like a magnet if I win. My job then will be to differentiate good from the bad people without biases and to channelise their energies in the right direction."  
Meanwhile, Khanvilkar has identified six areas that require immediate attention in his ward -- 24-hour water supply, maintenance of gardens, water logging, road repair, and traffic management at Juhu circle. "Water, traffic and public transport are some of the biggest issues in DN Nagar (Ward No 60). The traffic at Juhu circle creates a problem for everybody starting from Amitabh Bachhan to a bicycle rider," he says. 

Beat the system?
Idealism aside, how will this bunch deal with bureaucrats and the elected masterminds backed by mighty political parties? Khanvilkar says, "If 50,000 people are backing me, I can face anything. I am educated, can analyse and solve matters and can get down to the basics. That will be my biggest strength." Gade too is mentally prepared for the onslaught and says he will work according to the situation. "If I have to play politics for the good of the people, I will," he says.

Logistics are a problem too. For instance, they won't have a political party ward office at their disposal. To circumvent that, Khanvilkar and Daruwala intend to rent out small office areas in their localities that can be a space where they will be easily accessible to the people. Gade, however, has bigger things on his mind. "Their (voter's) house will be my office. I will go and meet the people weekly and interact with them personally.

What's the point of them coming to me to solve the problems of the area? I have to go to them, that's my job," he says.  And in the event that they win, their career paths will change. Khanvilkar admits that he will have to quit his high-paying job but he intends to start an HR consultancy firm for recruitment and training.

"Starting my own business will allow me to have flexible timings so I can concentrate on my job as a corporator during the day and manage my business alongside and in the evening." Gade is prepared to let go of his full time assignments.

"If I have promised people that I will work for them, I cannot work full time. I will have to let go of daily serial and film assignments and will restrict my work to weekly serials and advertisements." Khanvilkar has the last word. "The results will be out on 17th and if I lose, I will go back to work on the 18th, but my social work will continue. I took a chance, I will put up a fight. It is now for the people to decide," he says.

Voters get smart
A few active citizens have formed groups to take matters into their own hands and solve their own issues, and the news of independent candidates has only strengthened their resolve. The F-North ward Citizen Federation (FNCF) (pic above) is one such group, which has decided to vote en masse for an independent candidate promising to resolve their issues.

The federation has decided not to vote for candidates associated with political parties this year. It believes that parties are running dynastic politics by fielding wives and daughters of politicians from reserved seats and they will yet again not deliver on their promises if they win. "This is the first time that we are coming together to find out who the best candidates are for us. The electorate is responsible for choosing for right candidates.

This time, we will mobilise people living in our building. Many people may not know about citizen candidates but we can make them aware and then let them take a decision," says D Sukumar, local businessman and FNCF member. "The sitting corportors know that they will not get votes from us this time, and have begun to play games.

Nehal Shah who is as good as an independent candidate (she is from the newly formed Loksatta party) standing from the area told me that she was offered money by a politician to withdraw her name. If there is even one independent candidate standing from the area we will vote for that candidate, but if Mumbai 227 also decides to field a candidate then we have to come to a consensus. If our votes get split between the two candidates then both will lose and we don't want that. We don't want politicians to laugh at us. We want change and we will vote in numbers," says Jaipal Shetty, a FNCF member.