Before the debate between the candidates of Bangalore South ended in chaos the two main candidates in the fray, self-made billionaire-turned-Congressman Nandan Nilekani and BJP national secretary Ananth Kumar, provided very different perspectives of what candidates for an urban parliamentary constituency should be debating.

Ananth Kumar kept his focus on larger national issues while Nilekani wanted to discuss immediate local concerns like the availability of water.

If one saw the MP from Karnataka’s metropolis being primarily a participant in national debates, the other evidently saw the MP as a super-corporator. Neither thought it necessary to prioritise their vision for the city and how they would use membership of Parliament to take that view forward.

The fact that elections do not throw up debates on alternative visions for the city is not confined to this constituency. Indeed, it is at the core of disconnect between a successful electoral process and a dysfunctional urban democracy.

It’s about vision

Ideally, a party should have a clearly defined vision for a city and elections are the time to seek endorsement for this vision from the people. A meaningful vision for urban areas, particularly a metropolis, would require initiatives at the local level, at the state level and at the national level.

The corporation elections could then debate the local initiatives, the assembly elections could debate the state-level initiatives needed, and the parliamentary elections could debate the role of national policy in supporting a vision for a city.

Those who are elected on the basis of a particular vision would then generate and support policies that would help the city go along the path that the people support.

In reality, this system has been disrupted right from the top. MPs from urban constituencies have no specific role in the making of national urban policy.

MPs had little to do with the making of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Whatever support the policy needed in Parliament was provided by the fact that MPs who did not vote the way the party demanded stood the risk of being disqualified under the anti-defection law.

With their policymaking role being removed, MPs are left with only their local area development funds to utilise. These funds, though quite substantial in terms of what an individual MP can control, are insignificant in terms of what a city needs. All that an MP can do then is utilise them for selective patronage.

The MPs who have a good chance of re-election are typically those who have used these funds to develop a consistent set of supporters, or what others would call vote-banks.

This process necessarily has elements of stealth built into it at various levels. MPs functioning through selective patronage are not keen on explaining to the public at large why they chose to support one section of their constituents and not others.

It is in their interest then to ensure that any debate is disrupted.

And if the public can get past this hurdle and actually convince their MPs to follow a particular policy option, it would still not be of much use as the elected representatives have little or no role in policymaking. It is hardly surprising then that those living in our cities often do not even hear of policies until they are implemented.

Response to resentment

It is in response to this resentment among urban citizens that some politicians are promising to let the people decide on policy.

But as the short-lived AAP experiment in Delhi demonstrated, going back to the people for each decision is a recipe for disaster. Apart from the chaos, the very large number of opinions such a process throws up ensures that those in control can always find a section of public opinion to support whatever they want to do.

Again, while the public must have the right to choose between options, they need not always have the ability to come up with the most effective options. The absence of an effective democratic link between the urban citizen and policymakers leads to a schizophrenic urban policy.

As elections approach the focus is so much on providing a voice for the people that policymaking is confined to meeting immediate requirements like overcoming acute drinking water shortages.

Once elections are over, those in power concentrate on developing policies without any regular mechanism to identify the priorities that the people have in mind. The result is a pursuit of ‘world class cities’ that do not have the basic ability to provide drinking water to all their citizens.

The way forward is for elected representatives to take the voice of the people to policymakers to ensure the making of efficient and inclusive urban policies. But with the democratic link between the people and policy being broken in so many places, this is not going to happen in a hurry.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore