All wards reserved for backward classes and Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/women will have "candidates of poor calibre." So 'asserts' one of Mumbai's most high profile 'citizen activists' in a daily newspaper in the city. This statement - from a 'civil' society leader - escaped comment or response. Both in that paper and at large. A sign of how easily caste and other visceral prejudices pass off as analysis in the aggressive anti-reservation mood gripping the upper classes.

That isn't all, though. His group is "trying to working out a system of grading candidates." Elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's 227 wards will be held next month. And the rotation of reserved wards is causing heartburn. More so amongst the elite. Some of Mumbai's swankiest neighbourhoods find their wards reserved for SCs and OBCs. (It could hurt property values, you know.) And the bile is out.

Besides, it's that time of year. "Citizens' groups," mostly headed by the very elite, are hogging media time and space. The Beautiful People whose next-door neighbours never vote are back, teaching the masses - who do vote - how to go about it. One group wants a corporate agency to do candidate 'ratings.' (This has rich possibilities. A Candidate Sensitive Index? Call it CANSEX?) Others are running their own aspirants.

Now all this, up to a point, is good clean fun. It is part of the charm of elections in our society that so many feel encouraged to stand. (Including one astonishing BMC hopeful who got just the one vote the last time. And two more who secured two votes each.) It speaks well, too, of the urge to participate in the democratic process. And different groups do so in many ways. Political parties contest wards they know they will lose. Where they might at best get a few hundred votes. Maybe a thousand. They see that as a way of measuring their core vote there. And believe this will help consolidate a nascent base that might otherwise drift towards other parties.

There are also other, truly interesting groups this time. Like one that will contest each of the six wards in Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum. Win or lose they will force a debate on some of the most vital issues of urban development. Including the future of lakhs of families like their own. Maharashtra's scheme for Dharavi sells out residents' interests to real estate sharks. Fearing the destruction of their livelihoods, some locals have formed this group to contest the BMC polls.

And, of course, there are the mainstream political parties involved in the battle for control of a corporation whose Rs.9,000 crore budget outstrips those of some States in the Northeast. This time, Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena will be a spoiler for the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. Those refused a ticket by the latter now have more ponds to fish in. The Congress-Natiionalist Congress Party's who-will-blink-first alliance bargaining is entertaining. And the re-delineation of wards can make things dicey for some hopefuls.

It's happened before. The newspapers of 1971 were over the moon with Naval Tata running for the Lok Sabha from Bombay South. In the event, he was trounced by a Congress candidate little heard of at the time, and unheard of since.

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Yet, it is the elite "citizen's groups" that hold the media spellbound. Of course, they have as much a right to fight the elections as anyone else. What is amazing is the media space and legitimacy these groups always get. Never mind that they are the least important in the poll process. Never mind too, that their importance blossoms after the polls. (Why bother with the ballot when you anyway get to run the government later?) A glance at Mumbai's media and you'd think these groups, particularly one, are setting the agenda. That they are re-defining the entire process. The members of group themselves believe it, which is fine. Whether the media should, is the question.

During the 2004 national polls, and the Assembly elections later, the same elite Mumbai crowd hogged hours of television time. They existed wholly in the media, both print and visual. Malabar Hill socialites became 'noted activists.' They played a central role in television debates. And were always accepted at their own valuation. That is, the people the anchor turned to with deep respect as independent, impartial forces without a bias. But with a 'cause' - the cleansing of a corrupt electoral process. Which only they, of course, were capable of. All this tanked horribly at the hustings. As the results rolled out, not a byte was sought, nor a quote supplied, from the previous month's wholesale dealers in profound thought.

This is so across the country. Any outfit launched by ex-IITians, for instance, is a sure-fire media hit. No matter that these sink without a trace at the polls. The last one commanded front page treatment in the press. The highlights included such thoughtful quotes from its founders: "Giving up handsome pay packages, comfort of family and support of friends wasn't that easy." And "My inner voice told me I should invest my efforts in my country... " "People think we are crazy so much so that our families have also failed to understand our motto... " (You'd think that if even your own family failed to understand, you might have a communication problem. One that could hurt you in the campaign.) Some of these were likely sincere, well-meaning people. But you could also have got these same quotes from thousands of others candidates.

However, it was the 'brand' that mattered. At least to the media if not the voter. As one young journalist covering the present round of BMC polls puts it: our approach is simple. Anything that has an 'I' a double 'II' or 'IT' in it makes front page. That is, if you have an IT, IIT or IIM tag. Then the force is with you. Candidates of these brands are covered with near reverence.

It happened in the 2006 polls in Tamilnadu when one of the chosen few "took on Karunanidhi" in Chepauk. Newspapers ran stories on this brave new world battle. It didn't matter that Mr. Karunanidhi had likely never heard of his rival and probably never will. This was an IIT man. Again, of course, he had a right to be in the fray. And to take on Mr. Karunanidhi, if he saw it that way. And it does not matter that he got under 1 per cent of the votes cast and less than two per cent of those notched up by the DMK leader. It does matter that the space the media gave this was misleading to their audiences, cruel to a cub candidate, and harmful to their own credibility.

But with each new election we go through the whole drama again. The media love it when someone they see as 'middle class' gives those ugly politicians "a run for their money." (Usually, the heroes are mostly upper middle class in the Indian hierarchy.) Another big daily in Mumbai has front-paged the decision of three ex-IITians to run in the BMC elections. It goes on.

One tabloid has front-paged several stories of heroic 'citizens activist' groups. These reports carry a symbol - the clenched fist. Not a symbol most of the upper classes would care to have in their own homes. But it's the thought that counts, I guess.

Margins and upsets

One argument the groups now make is that in 83 BMC wards, the victory margin was less than 100 votes the last time. So in theory, if you can get 100 votes, you can cause an upset. The margins may have been narrow. But the top candidates got votes in the thousands. Raj Thackeray's MNS candidates could cause several such upsets. But only on the basis of getting quite a few votes themselves. Even being a spoiler requires some clout.

Meanwhile, the papers though are full of 'tips' and 'ideas' from the groups on how we should vote. These range from the embarrassing to the absurd. And have little to do with the issues that motivate far more conscious voters and citizens than themselves.

It's happened before. The newspapers of 1971 were over the moon with Naval Tata running for the Lok Sabha from Bombay South. They saw this as the best thing ever to happen for the 'middle class.' Good, clean candidates were all that people wanted. For some, the race was a no-contest. Tata would win hands down. In the event, he was trounced by a Congress candidate little heard of at the time, and unheard of since. After that, many good, clean industrialists have settled for buying their way into the Rajya Sabha.

The lovely bit is where the newspaper or channel tells you: "this time it's different." A group of idealistic young whatever have "banded together" to do whichever. The current crop are fighting 'vote bank politics.' 'Vote bank' means those who support someone you can't stand. But something is different this time. And it's appalling. Open jibes at SC, ST, and OBC candidates and voters. Attacks on 'slum appeasement' by politicians. Some members of these elite outfits are closely linked to corporate cabals whose thinking they mirror. Some have also been party to a petition seeking to take away the voting rights of slum dwellers whose huts have been demolished. (Aha! They have no address now. How can they vote?) Even the eccentric charm of the two-vote wannabes is missing in this lot. And they are completely without humour. This is the upper middle class trying to preen itself in the one process where they matter less. They seem not satisfied with the fact that their raj will mostly be restored once it is over.