Towards directly elected and empowered mayors

The post of mayor should be important in itself and not just be seen as a stepping stone to state or national-level politics


A mayor executing projects will tend to gain popularity at the expense of the local legislator whose job is to legislate and scrutinise the performance of the executive. Photo: HT
A mayor executing projects will tend to gain popularity at the expense of the local legislator whose job is to legislate and scrutinise the performance of the executive. Photo: HT

One should give credit where it is due. Shashi Tharoor is an outstanding parliamentarian. He has made two attempts, via private member’s bills, to amend section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. Last week, he brought another private member’s bill to provide for direct election, and empowerment of the office, of mayors in large Indian cities. It is well known that the urban mess that India finds itself in today can be largely traced to weak city-level institutions. An empowered office of a directly elected mayor is desirable. What are the challenges in getting there? And how many of those challenges does Tharoor’s private member’s bill overcome?

The first challenge is the status quo itself and the vested interests it has entrenched. State governments do not wish to delegate more authority to city-level institutions. Chief ministers winning from rural constituencies or political parties relying on rural voters firmly believe in transferring urban resources to rural areas. Even if the mayor is directly elected, the state governments can refuse to devolve power and resources, effectively reducing him to a figurehead. Any bill introduced in Parliament can do little in terms of delegation of power from the state to the office of mayor. Tharoor’s bill accepts this fact when it says that the mayor “shall exercise such powers and discharge such duties of the Municipality as the Legislature of a State may, by law, confer upon him”.

The second challenge is the post of municipal commissioner. Even if some powers are delegated to the municipality, the state governments have in place municipal commissioners to perform the executive functions, again cutting the mayor to size, the nature of mayoral election notwithstanding. Tharoor’s bill rectifies this by making the mayor the executive head of the municipality. Additionally, his bill also gives the mayor the power to “authorise the payment and repayment of money relating to the Municipality”.

Let’s move to Shimla to identify the next challenge. The Prem Kumar Dhumal-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in Himachal Pradesh had amended the Municipal Corporation Act in 2010 to introduce direct elections for the office of mayor and deputy-mayor. The BJP hoped to cash in by winning these two offices in Shimla. To their dismay, both went to candidates belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2012.

The working of the elected candidates has, however, became difficult as the 26-member corporation is dominated by rival parties—12 from the BJP and 10 from the Indian National Congress. This is the third challenge—directly elected member belonging to a party in minority in the municipality—in empowering a directly elected mayor. And this apparently became a reason for the current Congress government in Himachal Pradesh led by Virbhadra Singh to scrap the system of direct election.

Tharoor’s bill empowers the mayor to veto a resolution passed by the municipality. His mayor undoubtedly is more “presidential” than “prime ministerial”.

Further, Tharoor provides for a mayor-in-council whose members will be nominated by the mayor from among the elected members of the municipality.

How such a system will work in different cities of India, if it were to become a law, is yet to be known. Not the least because the powers of mayor-in-council have been kept vague in his bill. The mayor-in-council system has existed in Kolkata and—notes Bhanu Joshi of the Centre for Policy Research—the fact that it “has fared well (is) largely attributed to the same party rule in the corporation and the state (barring 2000-2005 when TMC was in the Corporation and Left was in power in the State).”

But Sanjay Chauhan and Tikender Singh Panwar, the mayor and deputy-mayor of Shimla, have argued—in a recent TV interview—that the legislator of the area feels a political threat emanating from a directly elected local leader and this is an important reason behind the discontinuation of direct elections. (An aside: Shimla’s example should not mislead us into a belief that BJP is for directly elected mayors and Congress is not. The opposite happened in Rajasthan where Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government reversed the decision of Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government to have direct elections for mayors.) This is the toughest challenge and a private member’s bill, or any single legislation for that matter, can do little about it.

A mayor executing projects will tend to gain popularity at the expense of the local legislator whose job is to legislate and scrutinise the performance of the executive. A legislator will always see the directly elected and empowered mayor as a potential future rival and will do everything in his command to undercut his authority. The issue here is the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. It is not just important that this separation exists but also that this is well known to the voters. Voter awareness is the only thing that will drive them to vote for a legislator based on his performance in the state assembly or Parliament and vote for the mayor and councillors based on their executive performance.

A data analysis piece by Rukmini S. in The Hindu shows that neither the political parties nor the voters reward members of parliament (MPs) for their parliamentary performance. There is no reason to believe that the situation would be any different in the states with members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). This is partly the reason behind the existence of schemes like Members of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) and Members of Legislative Assembly Local Area Development (MLALAD). Providing an annual sum of money to MPs and MLAs for development works in their constituency, the two schemes are guilty of confusing the role of the legislator with the executive. They also blur the lines between the three tiers of government: the Union, the states and the local self governments. Add to that, the problem of patronage politics that both the schemes are inherently embedded with.

Despite so many problems, the MPLAD scheme has been upheld by the Supreme Court of India in Bhim Singh vs Union of India (2006). The apex court argued that “in modern governance, a strict separation [of powers between the executive and the legislature] is neither possible, nor desirable.” Don’t forget to note this lesson in “modern governance” by India’s highest court of law! But even the current Narendra Modi-led Union government does not believe in separation of powers. It can be gleaned from its own Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) wherein MPs are supposed to adopt a certain number of villages and develop them into model villages. SAGY has borrowed—as beautifully explained by M.R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research—all the wrongs from MPLAD.

Besides, what is wrong in mayors performing well and aspiring to become MLAs and MPs? The current president of Indonesia Joko Widodo started his political journey by successfully contesting for the mayor of the city of Solo in 2005. The post of mayor, however, should be important in itself and not just be seen as a stepping stone to state or national level politics.

Yuriko Koike, a former defence minister of Japan, was recently elected to the post of governor of Tokyo. How many former defence ministers in India will return to their cities to become mayors?

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