As political parties select their candidates for urban local bodies, experts point to the significant difference elected local bodies can make in urban governance.
The January 27 deadline set by the Supreme Court due to expire in a few days, Tamil Nadu will soon see elections for local urban authorities (ULB). There are enough clues to this effect, judging by the preparations of the political parties and the authorities.
The main parties – the DMK and the AIADMK – would have focused on their likely candidates. The ruling party may go with the same alliance that won the Assembly elections last April, while the AIADMK is in all likelihood expected to retain the BJP as a partner. Some of the major players’ allies have started shortlisting their candidates. “In some districts, we have completed this work,” says A. Gopanna, Senior Deputy Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. The BJP nominated former Union Minister Pon. Radhakrishnan in charge of electoral work, according to Mr. Chakravarthy, vice-president of the party. Despite a draw in the Assembly elections, the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), founded by actor Kamal Haasan, published two lists of 98 candidates. The others are preparing for the elections.
On Wednesday, the State Election Commission held discussions with the parties to hear their views on holding the elections. Over the past few months, he has held training programs for district officers on a host of topics, including COVID-19 safety protocols. Last week, the State Department of Municipal Administration and Water Supply and the Greater Chennai Corporation notified the reservation of ULB and Ward Chief positions.
Subject to any dramatic last-minute developments, it’s only a matter of days before the SEC announces the election. Civic ballots are held in the state after 10 years. In October 2016, elections were scheduled but were postponed following instruction from the Madras High Court. Subsequently, a host of events, political and administrative, contributed to the delay. Last September, the Supreme Court ruled against the SEC’s plea to extend the deadline by seven months (until April 2022) and set a deadline of four months.
Without committing itself in the Assembly’s electoral manifesto to organizing civic elections, the DMK had assured the electorate that it would pursue the project of having elected bodies. True to its word, the government paved the way for elections. At the same time, he did not deviate from the decision of the AIADMK government on indirect elections for the posts of mayors and presidents of municipalities and municipal panchayats.
This does not seem to have been well received by some of the activists. P. Viswanathan, head of all Chitlapakkam Resident Welfare Associations and DR Sivasamy, President of the Confederation of Organizations for Integrated Urban Development believe that there will be greater accountability only if mayors are directly elected. Mr. Viswanathan says that in a direct election, candidates must cover the whole area of local bodies, at least at campaign time. An academic, based in Tiruchi, says the style of campaigning will be more intense than under indirect election.
Critics of the indirect election say the person who holds the office of mayor would not have to leave their neighborhood at the time of the election. This can hamper the person’s understanding of issues in different parts of the city after taking office. The system of indirect elections would “reinforce party politics” in local bodies, leaving no room for people without parties to aspire to office. Even direct election has its drawbacks. While the head of a local body may belong to one party, the majority of councilors may belong to another party. A similar situation was witnessed by RS Bharathi, now a member of the DMK of the Rajya Sabha, when he was first elected Chairman of Alandur Municipality in February 1986 when AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran was the chief minister. “The strength of my party in the city council was lower than that of the AIADMK and the Independents. In a Chamber of 32 members, only 10 belonged to the DMK. I managed the situation with great difficulty, ”recalls Mr. Bharathi, who became head of the municipality for three other terms, including once in indirect mode in 2006.
Moreover, under the direct election system, it is not that the party leadership will have no control over its mayors, who can ill afford to ignore the diktat of their party bosses. In May 2014, immediately after the election of Lok Sabha, the then Mayor of Coimbatore, S. M. Velusamy was first removed from office by AIADMK General Secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa from the post of Coimbatore Urban District Secretary. A few hours later, he also left the post of mayor, without giving a reason. One of the reasons given for this development was then that his performance did not benefit the party to the extent it should have, as the AIADMK, which won 37 seats by huge margins in many constituencies, might win. Coimbatore by approximately 42,000 votes.
Although this is the second time that indirect election has taken place after the 74th Constitutional Amendment on ULB came into force in June 1993, the system was traditionally followed in Tamil Nadu. For example, in Chennai, until November 1973, the mayor held the post for only one year through rotation of representatives from different segments of society. As for the intensity of campaigning in the indirect system, S. Nandakumar, founder of Thannatchi, a civil society organization specializing in local government issues, points out that this depends on the participation of key political actors. “The system in itself has no role to play. Even as discussions are ongoing on the two systems, voices are being raised against holding elections amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. “I am a strong supporter of local elected officials. At the same time, the reality of the growing pandemic cannot be ignored,” observes Mr. Sivasamy.
No room for consultation
Moreover, there are groups of people who do not want elected bodies at all. Rama Valan, a resident of Anna Nagar, had faced “several strange situations” when he built a house in Valasaravakkam. Needless to say, the situation was the entire creation of the elected representatives. But S. Kumararaja and K. Kathirmayon, activists based in Velachery in Chennai and Coimbatore respectively, do not dispute the problems the councilors can pose. However, in the arrangement where the companies have been run by special agents for five years, there is not much room for consultation with people. Field workers are either risk averse or indifferent to people’s needs. A keen ULB observer says accountability has become a major concern in the absence of local elected bodies. As long as the elected officials ran the Municipal Corporation of Tiruppur, the local body did not hesitate to make payments to the New Tiruppur Area Development Corporation for obtaining water. But the situation worsened as soon as the elected body ceased to exist.
Counselors can play a positive role. There is a perception in the bureaucracy that the presence of advisers could have lightened its workload during times of flooding or at the height of the pandemic. Elections can make a qualitative difference in urban governance if honest candidates rooted in local issues win, says S. Pushpavanam, an activist. Activists say the government should give the ULB more space in governance. Take the case of Chennai, where the local body has virtually no say in the operation of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Drainage Board or the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). When MK Stalin was mayor from 1996 to 2001, there was an institutional arrangement between the local body and the water board.
A similar mechanism will have to be put in place not only in Chennai but also in Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Madurai and Hosur, where CMDA type bodies have been set up.
Given its rapid urbanization and potential, activists hope that Tamil Nadu can emerge as a model state where local bodies will blossom into ideal institutions of self-governance, if changes are made to policies and mechanisms. institutional.