Congress president Rahul Gandhi wants to introduce a system that directly elects mayors to provide leadership that builds “real smart cities”. He tweeted about it earlier this week, and has promised it in the Congress manifesto that was released Tuesday.
Real smart cities are built by good leaders.
To improve quality of life in our cities we will move to directly elected Mayors with 5 yr terms & elected councils.
Administration will be run by multidisciplinary teams of specialists & experts accountable to the Mayor & council.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) April 1, 2019
In this tweet, he simultaneously sought to target PM Narendra Modi’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission and also promote a new idea for urban governance. But is this a band-aid solution to something that is fundamentally weak and unravelling?
The Congress manifesto has a section on cities, which promises the introduction of “a new model of governance for towns and cities through a directly elected mayor with a fixed term of 5 years, an elected Council and a separate administrative structure for each urban body.” It further states that the city administration “will be accountable to the Mayor and the Council and there will be a provision to recruit technical experts and build capacity as well as multi-disciplinary teams to do urban planning and implement municipal works.”
Focus on cities
The renewed push on cities and urban governance is a welcome change. The idioms that dominate Indian politics continue to be centred on the village since more than two-thirds of the country is still rural. Urban India is vastly underrepresented in Parliament and has a lower share of representatives than what its population warrants. Hence, issues of urban governance rarely get enough political and policy attention.
While politicians like Shashi Tharoor and Milind Deora have flagged the need for directly elected mayors in the past, it never got wide traction. While Rajiv Gandhi brought the agenda of Panchayati Raj at the forefront of Indian politics, Rahul Gandhi could do the same for urban governance.
However, the proposal of introducing directly elected mayors also raises some difficult questions.
The constitutional question
Currently, the process of electing a city’s mayor and his/her tenure in office varies vastly across India. While Bengaluru has an indirect election for the mayor with a tenure of one year, Mumbai has indirect elections for a 2.5-year tenure and Bhopal has a directly elected mayor for a term of five years. This is because each state’s municipal laws determine the details of the office of the mayor. While the 74th Constitutional Amendment passed in 1992 lays out the broad outline of how municipalities should function, it has not prescribed the mode of election or tenure of mayors.
Hence, the primary question to examine is whether the Centre can introduce a uniform system of directly elected mayors with a fixed five-year term for all cities across India. As per Item No. 5, List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, “local government” is a state subject. Hence, the Centre cannot legislate on issues related to local government or dictate how mayors of municipalities are elected.
If this reform is to be made mandatory across all states, the Centre would have to introduce a constitutional amendment (as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor attempted in a private member’s bill). This is not only a cumbersome process that requires a 2/3rd majority in Parliament and endorsement from half of the states, but it also raises concerns regarding over-prescribing and centralising local government rules.
Alternatively, if the Centre tries to entice states to pass this measure by making it a conditionality for receiving central funds, it would betray the spirit, if not the letter, of the 74th Amendment. What Congress can instead do is introduce mayoral reforms first in the states that it governs and then demonstrate its effectiveness so that other states can pick up.
Urban governance reforms
Beyond the question of how such a reform can be introduced, the more fundamental question is whether it can positively impact India’s cities.
The global examples of directly elected mayors successfully transforming their cities have little relevance for India. In Indian cities, it is not just the mayor who is weak, but also the municipality.
Instead of a city government that performs all the key urban tasks, we have Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), which are often just one among different agencies responsible for the city’s administration. The ULB is politically, financially and administratively weak and heavily reliant on the state government for its functioning.
The mayor, whether directly or indirectly elected, has a limited sphere of influence in Indian cities currently. To address this issue, merely changing the mode of election or tenure of the mayor is not enough. After all, towns and cities in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, etc., have directly elected mayors with fixed five-year terms, but few would argue that they are better administered.
Only if mayoral reforms are accompanied by other measures that empower urban local governments would there be any meaningful change in city governance. However, beyond the mention of hiring multidisciplinary specialists and experts, the Congress manifesto has not clearly committed for a broader agenda of urban governance reform. The Congress proposal should hopefully initiate a wider discussion among local, state and central governments and the public at large regarding what urban governance systems we need and what are the ways of instituting it.
The author is a lawyer and policy specialist on urban governance and a research consultant at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru.