Cities will play a large Role in electing National governments

In a recent article by Michael Bloomberg in Foreign Affairs (www.foreignaffairs.com), he has placed a very compelling argument for cities. Cities, he says, have always been more instrumental in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice, to Baghdad and Beijing, cities have been the ones that have shaped civilisations. Drawing a parallel, in India too, the cities of Agra, Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai have, since pre modern times and even today, shaped narratives in the nation. The urban populations have grown from a mere 10% to about 50% today and estimated to increase to 70% in the near future.

A city concentrates brain power of humanity in relatively small geographic areas, that promotes the kind of interactions and creativity that lead to scientific breakthroughs and technological advances. Cities have been the drivers of economy and today, with the knowledge economy, cities will play a leading role in addressing challenges faced by humanity, says Bloomberg.

In the article, Bloomberg argues that it is the city that will play a leading role towards change than national governments. This, he says happens, because cities are relatively smaller units, innovation can be quickly tried and tested out, unlike the slumbering bureaucratic pace of national governments.

While Bloomberg makes this argument, I am compelled to also look at the role of cities in forming or electing governments, at all levels. The first interface that humans have with infrastructure is at the city level and the city is the immediate space outside the home that an individual interacts with for his/her economic, intellectual and recreational needs. When the national government debates the GST bill or the Land Bill, the Common Man creates his/her perceptions about the government solely on the quality of life that he/she experiences in the city and never on the merits and demerits of the Bills. The performance of the National government is also weighed in terms of whether I had a relatively hasslefree ride home, rather than assessing the pros and cons of an intricate taxation structure for the country.

So, my theory is that if a city government offers its citizens an excellent quality of life, the pattern of voting (and not just for civic elections) in that city will be more inclined to retain the incumbent National and State government as well. The Voting preference for most will seldom depend on what larger policy narratives/changes have occurred at the State or National level. Alternatively, if citizens see harangued by the miseries of urban life, the incumbent party even at the State and National level is indirectly threatened to lose power.

So it stands to reason that though National or General Elections cannot focus on resolving the garbage and water woes of a city, the political narrative will have to give a serious consideration to these issues and not just leave it for the civic elections to tackle. In the General Elections of 2014, Modi's election speeches spoke about the unclean cities and hence found appeal with the Common Man. However, in doing so, of course, Modi expanded the expectations of the Common Man from the National government, and we started believing that every bit of litter on a by-lane in our city should be cleaned by the Modi government. This is an unfortunate by-product, however, I still maintain that National and State governments, should closely look at the performances of the cities to ensure a re-elected mandate.

With the recent victory to BJP in MP and Rajasthan civic polls, we see this syndrome where voting pattern shows that incumbents are rejected by the electorate for the simple reason that cities have failed its citizens in providing basic qualities of life. The reason for BJP success, despite the Vyapam and lalit Modi issue, in rest of Rajasthan but not in Vasundhara Raje's bastion, proves the point.

Unless we fix our cities, either through State or National urban policy or through local innovation, the quality of life that a city offers its citizens will continue to play an influencing role in electing and/or rejecting governments at national and state levels also. This is a heartening thought, because fixing problems in cities is much doable than fixing problems of a Nation. Alternatively, you can argue that if problems of a city are fixed, those of a nation will be automatically fixed!

Bloomberg argues that cities are more responsive, more tuned and less bureaucratic than State and National governments. At the National or State level, single point agendas can derail public policy. We saw a glimpse of this happening as the Monsoon Session of the Parliament was a complete washout on a single point agenda of the Opposition, making any policy making difficult and wrought with delays.

My parting thought after reading the article and relating it to India was that the cities need to be fixed and fast! It should be a priority for the National government and the State government also.  The abolishing of the LBT and the non operationalization of the GST is going to burden the coffers of the local governments and cities are going to suffer. All levels of government needs to address this. Perhaps, an understanding that unless cities are fixed, no government will be able to get reelected, will prompt faster action at the higher levels and better action at the lower levels.

Bengaluru civic elections are just around the corner, perhaps they will show what trends of voting emerge from this Garden City which has experienced a significant reduction in quality of life for the citizens.

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