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Whose city is it anyway?

From asking for action against street hawkers to restraining clean up Marshals from imposing fines, the Courts in Mumbai it would seem have been more seized about issues in this local election in recent days than the political parties. As Mumbai gears up to go to polls this week to elect its local government the debate has largely focused on conventional issues with no radical vision emerging from any of the three principal combines.
 
A particularly sore point in local governance in Mumbai has been the question of who ultimately has responsibility for the affairs of this mega city. Based on this columnist's exchange with Mumbai insiders from within the political circles it would appear that the election will largely be about the candidates and less about the issues. Thus the absence of a radical agenda to remake local governance in Mumbai is not surprising.

This election will mostly end up being about incremental and linear change without radically altering the status quo. While the incumbent ruling combine would like to keep the focus on improvements, their principal challengers the Congress-NCP duo have been highlighting the dismal state of infrastructure, mainly Mumbai's pothole riven roads.

Interestingly BMC being a debt free Municipal Corporation the debate has been less about how to raise revenues and more about budgets not spent. While the BJP did bring up the issue of eliminating the practice of collecting Octroi Tax, the proposal seems to have few takers both within its own alliance and the Opposition. The muted debate over Octroi opens a window to a larger debate over the share of the revenues from all the economic activity generated by a mega city like Mumbai.

While one sees stray comments from the BJP-SS combine and even the Congress partner NCP on Mumbai's claim to a greater share of the revenues it generates, what is missing from this election is an informed debate on fundamental changes to the devolution of power between the Centre, state and local government with increasing financial autonomy to Local Government. An additional dimension to this mix in this election is the continued attempt by so called independent "citizen candidates".

The DNA on February 6 had an interesting story on an umbrella organisation called Mumbai 227 pledging support to 60 such candidates. Not to be left behind in this attempt to striking a different path is the Lok Satta Party that has hit the campaign trail with a "unique public pledge".

The fragmented political space notwithstanding the focus of the election will largely be on the principal political parties in general and more specifically on whether the RPI alliance makes any difference to the incumbent BJP-SS combine and on the degree to which Raj Thackeray's MNS emerges as king maker.

Mumbai Insiders are projecting a close contest with the BJP-SS-RPI combine and the Congress-NCP combine finishing within a margin of few seats of each other between 85 and 100 each while the MNS picks up around 20 seats. A survey by Star Majha put the Congress-NCP ahead of the SS-BJP-RPI combine by about 10 seats with diminished role for the MNS.

Yet another local election may go past by Mumbai without a significant debate on the key issue of greater devolution of power and greater autonomy to local government. It is in fact surprising that the Mumbai election did not see any debate at all on the issue of a Directly Elected Mayoral system that is typical of mega cities or on the issue of making Law enforcement and First Responder agencies directly accountable to the communities they serve. That debate perhaps will have to wait for another day while Mumbai goes to polls with 2,233 candidates in fray.

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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