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We need more political parties that address urban aspirations


The return of Arvind Kejriwal to power in Delhi establishes him as India’s foremost urban politician. His Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) scored in the core urban parts of Delhi, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a distant second, made gains mostly on the periphery, with some semi-rural seats.

Kejriwal’s win suggests that India’s urban areas are ripe for reform if only we had political parties that could articulate urban aspirations. Thanks to Gandhi and Bollywood, we have internalized the idea that India lives in its villages, but that is rapidly changing. The truth is we have reduced our best entrepreneurs, our farmers, to beggars through doles and subsidies, even while hobbling our real growth engines, our urban areas. This can only be remedied if urban aspirations are articulated better with parties whose hearts are urban.

Kejriwal is the rare urban leader who is directly elected and has effective control of key domains such as education and health. The mere fact that AAP has been able to deliver some positive results in these areas enabled it to humble the BJP, despite the latter using heavy artillery and emotive issues to swing the vote.

To be sure, Kejriwal’s winning formula is not replicable anywhere else, as he could offer loads of freebies to voters. This was possible because Delhi has a high revenue-to-expenditure ratio because of its status as India’s capital, where land and law and order are handled by the Centre. Delhi bears less of the burden of developing its infrastructure than many other comparable cities.

The main takeaway from Kejriwal’s success is that India needs many more urban parties, so that states are forced to give metros and mini metros greater control of their resources to boost growth and investment.

While the Constitution may need some tweaks to empower urban bodies on taxation and allow for direct elections to mayoral offices, a lot can be achieved if states acknowledge that their future is urban. Under entry 5 of the state list in schedule seven of the Constitution, it is states that have the power to make laws for local bodies. It says that “local government, that is to say, the constitution and powers of municipal corporations, improvement trusts, districts boards, mining settlement authorities and other local authorities for the purpose of local self-government or village administration” will come under the ambit of states.

In Maharashtra, where a three-party coalition headed by Uddhav Thackeray is in power, the Shiv Sena has chosen to keep the urban development portfolio, while most coalition heads would have sought finance or home. Thackeray chose urban development as the Sena’s political interests are tied to Mumbai and Thane, which have the state’s two richest municipal bodies. If the Sena wants to grow its political base, it can borrow a leaf from AAP’s book and legislate more powers to its mayors. Instead of reducing the mayoral office to something decorative, it should make them effective city chief executive officers. At present, the chief minister calls the shots, with the municipal commissioner as his proxy city head.

For too long, India has been shooting itself in the foot by handicapping its growth hubs, its cities, by disempowering them and using the wealth generated by them to bankroll rural politics. If India is to grow faster and create worthwhile jobs, these will happen only through concentrated urbanization and not by spreading largesse to rural areas.

India is 32% urban officially, but a World Bank study (Leveraging Urbanization In South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation For Prosperity and Livability) suggests that 55% of Indians live in places with “urban-like features”.

Our politics has been built around the presumption that Indians live largely in rural areas, but this is turning out to be a myth, as more and more poor and landless people gravitate towards urban agglomerations such as Delhi’s National Capital Region or the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. These two account for nearly 9% of India’s population.

India’s urban areas need dollops of investment in infrastructure, social and physical, but this money cannot be generated without reforms in urban governance. Urban areas create lots of wealth. They can be financed if urban governance is not controlled by state-level politicians, whose only interest seems to be in milking real estate.

In the coming years, the balance of political power will shift towards urban areas. Parties that try to straddle urban and rural constituencies cannot sacrifice the interests of urban areas for rural gains. The rise of urban parties such as AAP will force a change in priorities. An urban party could campaign for votes by promising better infrastructure, transport, better schools and hospitals, and cheaper housing by bringing down artificially inflated land prices.

Over the next two decades, India will be officially more than 50% urban and half the parliamentary and assembly seats will be urban or partly urban. Any politician with a horizon beyond the next election will know that cities will drive power, not rural areas. There is scope for 10 more AAPs or Shiv Senas. To retain power, parties have to think urban, not rural. Even rural vote banks will want urban jobs as farms consolidate and people head for cities.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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