Mumbaikars are getting ready for the civic polls, slated either on January 28 or February 4 next year. Politically, these are interesting times, because the stranglehold of the Shiv Sena has been broken, now that the party has split in two, and its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party is largely valid only for state and national elections. In cities this large, civic elections are pointers of bigger things, and citizens and politicians are both alert to the implications of elections here. Greater Mumbai's population, upwards of 15 million, is believed to be larger than that of a third of the nations that make up the United Nations. The budget of the BMC, around Rs 7,500 crore, is bigger than that of some states in the country.

With the elections approaching, citizens once again have opportunity or organise and make themselves heard by the political parties. The city has a long history of spawning citizens' movements, many of which have carved out niches of citizen control over the administration. The Advanced Locality Management (ALM) groups, for example, have zealously guarded their turf from encroachments and other depredations. In the posh area of Pali Hill in Bandra, for instance, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) cannot dig up the roads to lay utility lines without the ALM's permission.

This time, citizen engagement of public administration is rising to a new plane, with the active participation of former insiders. A new ginger group has been formed, called Citizens' Roundtable, chaired by the former union cabinet secretary, B.G. Deshmukh, and comprising two former Municipal Commissioners, urban experts and activists. It is building on the initiatives of a body already functioning for several years called AGNI – Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (, along with several other citizens' associations.

In one third of the constituencies, the margin of victory in the last civic elections was as little as 1000 votes.

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In the last parliamentary elections, AGNI launched a campaign to enlist voters and succeeded in getting 6 lakh new voters, with the active assistance of Chief Electoral Officer U.P.S. Madan, an exemplary official. In the city, there are now 80 lakh voters in 227 constituencies. This time too, Citizens' Roundtable plans to galvanise more voters, particularly in the well-off sections of the city, where voting is perfunctory. AGNI points out that in one third of the constituencies, the margin of victory in the last civic elections was as little as 1000 votes, sometimes only 25 to 40. The Roundtable plans to form a nucleus of 1000 committed voters in each constituency who should hopefully be able to make a difference. At the very least, it will be sending a strong signal to the political class that their customary manipulation of the electorate may not work so easily this time, and they cannot be taken for granted.

Being composed of many professionals, Roundtable is enlisting the services of financial experts to 'rate' candidates, a la CRISIL's rating of securities. Since each candidate is now required to reveal his assets and the like, it will examine each candidate's financial background, his criminal record and so on. This is a task at which the Election Commission has been woefully inadequate, including most recently in the case of Supriya Sule, daughter of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Sule was elected to the Rajya Sabha this year, and as the Mumbai daily DNA reported, declared crores' worth of assets while maintaining that she was a 'social worker'. Rather than accept a candidate's disclosures at face value, as successive election commissioners have tended to do, the professional rating by Roundtable will cause some embarrassment for those who either undervalue their assets or fail to explain the source of their wealth.

Roundtable has contacted the leading web portal, Rediff, to put out its messages to voters. An FM radio station has promised to do the same. For help in publicity, Roundtable has approached a multinational soap manufacturer, which is weighing the possible political fallout of its intervention. AGNI is targeting some 50 constituencies where the winner is likely to get elected by a small margin: small numbers of committed voters can make a difference in these areas.

The group is also putting the politicians on notice; it is writing to all the parties to keep in the mind the following factors when selecting candidates: their source of income or livelihood, capacity to understand city governance, record of public service, criminal record, commitment to disclose assets periodically (particularly after being elected!), commitment to interact with citizens' groups, to consultation with residents' associations, to transparency in budget expenditures. Roundtable and AGNI are planning to hold "Meet Your Candidate" sessions, where many of these issues will be openly discussed. From experience, it has been observed that those who have much to hide prefer not to expose themselves to questioning by citizens, which itself reveals their bona fides.

Candidates will also be queried how they plan to spend from their Corporators' Fund, which amounts to Rs.20 lakhs a year. I once chaired a similar AGNI session which was attended by elected representatives. The late Sunil Dutt refused to disclose what he was doing with his MP Local Area Development Funds, dismissing my question contemptuously with the remark that he presided over such a large constituency -- Mumbai North-West is possibly the country's most populous – that he didn't have the time or energy to consult residents' associations. He stated that he would inform constituents once he made up his mind. Such obvious disregard for the citizens may be a little easier to get away with for MPs, whose constituencies are large and who can therefore afford to ignore a few voters in some places. But in civic elections, this dodge is much harder, with every vote much more critical to the outcome.

More often than not, corporators misuse these funds. One in Mumbai is even alleged to have built a so-called public medical clinic from her budget, which she later got transferred to her own name as a private facility! Besides, corporators are joining hands, across parties, to get play grounds and recreations privatized under the pretext of turning them over to associations as 'caretakers'.

Another important source of strength to citizen action is the media. With a more proactive stance from the Fourth Estate these days, and particularly with the arrival of 'citizen journalism', things can only improve. At a recent Roundtable meeting, a member suggested that it was relatively easy for any citizen to take pictures with a cellphone of an electoral rally or the like which appeared to have surpassed the ceiling on such expenditure and send them to the election commissioner. Unfortunately, the State Election Commission, which supervises civic elections alone, to which such complaints have to be addressed, has a very modest budget and is not equipped to do very much on its own. A little help from observant citizens can go a long way towards keeping the politicking honest. The Right to Information Act will also help in this regard, and the city's residents, who have proved their intent in using this Act repeatedly since its passage, will no doubt keep their lens trained on the elections too.