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Unite, voters of Mumbai

There comes a phase in life where fun on New Year's Eve is subjected to endless juvenile entertainment. This New Year's Eve was not very different but for a pleasant surprise. Tucked away within the repertoire of juvenile movies the kids had lined up for the late evening was a movie called Chillar Party. While subtly touching on the sensitive subject of child labour the redeeming aspect of the movie was it ended on a feel good note keeping in spirit of the evening. What was however remarkable about the movie was the bold manner in which it made a statement on citizen engagement through a sequence that saw the kids in the movie march down to a Mumbai landmark in their unmentionables under the banner of a "Chhadi March". The message was stark as the children sought to shame their parents and cynical politicians into engagement and action.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) goes to polls on February 16. Even before the poll schedule was announced stories have started to appear in the media over voter apathy. In a story titled "Youth fault BMC on bad roads, poor water supply" the Times of India offered a glimpse of how unimpressed young voters of Mumbai were by online campaigns of the Political parties. Much of the sentiment expressed in that story was over street violence and civic apathy in providing basic services. Along comes this other story in the MiD DAY titled 'It is time to know how not to vote' on an NGO that plans to tap into this negative sentiment and educate young voters on exercising their franchise while rejecting all candidates.

It is not without reason voter cynicism is running high especially among young voters and first time voters. Much of the youth outreach it appears has been focused not on a vision for how Mumbai must be governed but on peripheral issues like hunger strikes, blood donation camps and employment fairs.  Belated attempts by the BMC to fix roads over the past few months seem to have done little to counter the cynicism with doubts being expressed on their ability to survive the next rains.  

The kind of cynical politics that has been on display in Mumbai over the encroachment on land for an Ambedkar Memorial shows how phony issues of identity have taken precedence over a meaningful agenda for Local Governance. It is a shame that politics in Mumbai over an Ambedkar memorial has come to be a repudiation of the very perils of hero worship that Ambedkar himself had warned of during his famous speech in the Constituent Assembly.

With both the Congress-NCP combine and the Shiv Sena, BJP, RPI-Athavale combine making a strong pitch for the Dalit vote it is anybody's guess at this time if the BMC polls will see a meaningful agenda on local governance. It is a shame that the nation's most populous city is falling short on being a role model for how Indian cities ought to be governed in the decades to come. One is yet to see in Mumbai or in the rest of Maharashtra the sort of progressive experiments in local governance that have been attempted by other states.

Tamil Nadu recently set a new trend by requiring direct elections to mayors to all local bodies across the state. Gujarat broke new ground last year by attempting to overcome voter apathy through innovations like Internet based voting. Even Bangalore, while being distracted by political instability in the state, was able to at least express its aspiration on how it must be governed through the ABIDE initiative.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh too got around to making a pitch for devolving more power to local government through the creation of a "Local bodies Financial List" in the Constitution. In the same speech Dr Singh spoke of empowering the bodies with exclusive taxes and unlocking land value to put in place a transparent and accountable mechanism for the monetisation of public land. It is ironic that less than a month later Dr Singh's government unlocked land value alright but for an opaque and political monetisation of prime real estate in Mumbai with local polls in mind.

It will take bold moves on the part of the political parties in the fray in Mumbai to overcome the apathy and the deep cynicism of the young voter and the first time voter. The parties will have to go beyond the experiments like the one attempted recently by the MNS' Raj Thackeray on conducting a test for aspirants to local polls. But the young voter too needs to realise that unless they create a demand for agenda local governance, the parties will fall back to good old identity politics.

Blogger and economist Atanu Dey in his book Transforming India had called for the creation of a vote bank for good governance by mobilising enlightened urban voters. Dey called this vote bank the UVI or "United Voters of India".  It is good to see that Dey's UVI is no longer an academic construct as voting bloc begins to assume shape in Mumbai through the website http://www.unitedvotersofindia.com.

This UVI in Mumbai is quite clear in its aspiration that it wants to create demand for good governance by organising the young and enlightened voter into a sizeable voting bloc with the bargaining power to force change. One hopes the young and first time voters of Mumbai tap into UVI and other such non-partisan initiatives to engage with the political process rather than resign themselves to a mere negative expression of resentment come February 16. 

The climax in the movie Chillar Party was a riveting confrontation between the kids and a fictitious minister live on prime time television. In that confrontation one of the kids who is silent for the most part in the movie stands up to the minister to remind him why it is important to do the right thing even if it makes you unpopular.  There is a profound message there for the young and first time voter of Mumbai to rise above the cynicism within their peer groups to engage with the political process and make a difference.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in. Opinions expressed in this column are his personal views

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