The asian age
New Delhi

The morning after Delhi voted, we do not know the results, but we do know that this was an election with a difference — there was a lot more active participation by citizens’ groups. And I am not talking of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I am talking of neighbourhood groups, unaffiliated to any party or candidate, but trying to ensure that whoever wins will keep his or her promises.
Citizens’ groups have begun to emerge in several Indian cities in recent times in response to the epic failure of good governance. Their goal: to act as independent watchdogs and vigorously push community issues no matter who comes to power.
The voluntary movement in India has been debating for over five decades if they should enter electoral politics. Occasionally, the debate has been fierce, and the groups evenly divided. The same debate split Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, with AAP being the section that is trying to transform volunteer-led citizen movement into a political fighting force.
The story of AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal fascinates Delhi’s media. Last week, one television journalist wondered aloud if some candidates fielded by the AAP (literally the ordinary peoples’ party) were not a shade “too aam” (ordinary). Be that as it may, the jury is out on whether AAP can usher in real change. But undoubtedly, it has given “ordinariness” a new clout.
So far, AAP is a largely urban phenomenon. But other parties cannot ignore that in a fast urbanising India. The 2011 Census estimates that 31.2% of Indians live in cities and towns today compared to 27.8% in 2001 and 25.5% in 1991.
Citizens’ groups are already playing big roles in this urban landscape. In my South Delhi neighbourhood, I have witnessed the emergence of the Citizen’s Alliance. It started with a “Stop the Mall’ campaign that would affect traffic and was sited next to a school.
For months, Alliance members made the rounds of concerned government departments, going up to the highest administrative level. They made little headway. Then they took the matter to the Delhi high court, where it now is.
The Alliance had more than commitment and dedication. Its leaders were media savvy. There was a flurry of articles in leading newspapers. There were Facebook posts. This may have been India’s first organised urban middle-class protest against a mall.
In the run-up to the Delhi elections, the Alliance launched a campaign to spur residents to go out and vote. Members of the group say no matter who wins, their job is cut out. They will continue to campaign to make sure that community concerns do not slip into the background once election results are announced.
Amar D.R. Singhani, an engineer and a member of the Alliance, explained why it was so important to get the middle and upper middle classes to go to the polling booth. “For years, many of us who are professionals worked quietly. We ignored core issues like the state of our pavements, our drains, the traffic, healthcare, safety and so on. If we had money, we bought our way out of the problems. But the “it does not hurt me” attitude damaged all of us in the long run. People may live in grand houses. But when they drive down the road in their neighbourhood, they still have to deal with encroachments, bad drainage...”
Mr Singhani says ordinary citizens have become activists because they have realised that things will not happen on their own and that whoever is elected will do things only if the pressure is kept up.
This is just one example of ordinary middle- class city dwellers banding together because they no longer want to watch quietly from the sidelines as their neighbourhoods get destroyed and public spaces become unsafe.
Urban middle-class activism first exploded when Jessica Lall’s killer was acquitted by a trial court. People mobilised through SMS and emails. This, along with continuous media focus, finally resulted in the conviction of Manu Sharma. The next marker was the Anna Hazare-led mass protests against corruption. This resonated with the public and there was a huge support. The country rallied together again for the December 16 gangrape victim. Rising Internet penetration has had a lot to do with this, since it is now so much easier to make your feelings known.
Associations of new civil society have helped enhance citizens’ role in public life in contemporary urban India through articulate use of the media, other forms of communication, social networks and lobbying,” notes Dr Binty Singh — a sociologist specialising in urban issues — in a report titled “Governance, Citizens and New Civil Society in Contemporary Urban India: Lessons from Mumbai”.
The report, published by the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank, says that the municipal elections in Mumbai in 2007 set a trend. “Adolf D’Souza, an independent candidate nominated by citizens’ groups, won the elections. He was from Municipal Ward Number 63 of Juhu, a suburban area in Mumbai. His victory was not his alone, but that of all of Mumbai’s civil society forces who were active in various facets of urban governance yet unable to accomplish much. D’Souza epitomised the coming together of civil society forces like Loksatta, Action for Good Governance and Networking in India, Advanced Locality Management and several other citizen groups like the Juhu Citizens’ Welfare group.”
Citizen power on the ground is also drawing support from professionals in cyberspace. As India moves towards the 2014 general elections, a number of websites are bringing to the voter information on candidates, legislators, parliamentary and Assembly processes and even encouraging them to vote. The Association of Democratic Reforms website ( has a list of reports. Topping the chart is the link to an analysis of candidates in the Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram polls.
One difference with earlier polls is becoming clearer. As the voters in the capital pressed the electronic voting machine buttons, it was not the end of their direct participation with democracy. As one member of The Citizens’ Alliance said, “We’ll meet the winner, whoever he may be, remind him of his promises and monitor what he is doing. We’ll give him some time, but then if he doesn’t deliver, we’ll start activating the same pressure points that we’ve been using.”

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