It was a lazy Sunday afternoon that saw the launch of a new political party in Bengaluru. Now, in an already overcrowded political spectrum, this should not be news. Yet the launch of Bengaluru Navanirmana Party (BNP) has some unique facets to it, that should get us to sit up and take notice.
For one, it is possibly the first of its kind ‘city’ party. Launched with the specific idea of starting its political journey with the 2020 BBMP elections, BNP has no ambitions beyond Bengaluru, and none of its founders are politicians. They are just regular citizens, many of whom are very active in their RWA and other citizen-led movements (that are largely middle class in nature), working on issues that plague the city. And the party is not personality-driven.
Srikanth Narasimhan, one the founders of the party, says, “We have largely been a group of citizens who have worked with politicians, so naturally the question – given our apolitical nature – was ‘why’. But that is what we are now – ‘a’ political party.”
But as a credible political alternative, will this party – hemmed in by a city’s geography – really work in a system like ours? Or is the system stacked too strongly against those who wish to enter it to change it?
Now, in an administrative hierarchy, local governments are very important because they are tasked with doing the things we need everyday – cleaning our streets, providing education and healthcare for vulnerable sections, disposing of our dead, protecting urban greenery etc.
If democracy is about people’s power, municipalities are the closest power to the people. Local governments move administration away from a capital city – away from the Vidhana Soudha in case of Bengaluru. And their authority is important to ensure that a diverse demographic pursue flourishing lives together.
Bengaluru has had a local government in place from 1949 (since India’s independence) – 52 mayors have come and gone. And for the last nine years, 198 corporators along with the MPs and MLAs of the city have been trying to govern this monstrosity we call Bengaluru.
Yet the problems that plague us have remained the same – garbage, bad infrastructure, sewage etc. For a city that claims to be one of the fastest-growing in the world, that we can’t solve these problems – which weren’t issues even during the Harappan civilisation – is quite telling.
So the rise of a party of citizens who were fed up with the system, almost sounds like a Salim-Javed script from the 70s with Big B playing the lead role. A block buster for sure, you’d say. However, I am playing devil’s advocate, and these are three major issues I see with the electoral success of BNP.
First, the people behind BNP are not professional politicians.
They are professionals who stumbled into the political arena while working diligently on issues that have plagued the city. Politics isn’t their primary focus. Now, many would argue this is their biggest advantage, but public perception largely remains that politics is an in-between job for most of them.
I’d also like to point out that many active citizens who contested elections in Bengaluru previously, never returned to the electoral foray after losing. They went back to their jobs. Sure, they continue to work on city issues, but they did not contest elections again.
Given a choice, would they want to be here fighting elections and politicians? My guess would be “not really”. While candidates of political parties may also be as fleeting as will-o-wisp before and after elections, the staying power of party trumps the individual, regardless of losses and victories. A bit of a paradox, I agree. But unfortunately, those have been the rules so far.
Srikanth, however, argues that many with BNP are extremely dedicated. “We aren’t here for just one election. I have already told my office that I will be working in a much diminished role there, to accommodate the demands of this [BNP] office. We are here for the long run, beyond 2020”.
However it will be a real challenge to convince a larger electorate beyond their immediate circle of influence, that BNP is here to stay. Public perception isn’t their best friend right now.
Second, the people involved are largely perceived to be ‘elite’.
BNP’s Governing Council, announced at the launch, was a list of the some of the most well-known faces in the public arena. Well-placed professionals who have led many successful citizen campaigns, and have access to the powers-to-be because of their personal standing.
How will this demographic represent the urban poor who make up a large part of the electorate? Convincing somebody like your domestic help to vote for you because you treat her well and therefore will be able to represent her politically, is easier said than done.
The Governing Council does include Prabhakar Rajendran, who has an impressive body of work at the grassroots level with the urban poor in the areas of education, water and housing rights. But unless there is a diversification of the current council, the group will continue to battle its image of being representatives of residents in gated communities and high-rises. Srikanth is quick to say that the council will expand from the current lot of 15 to include people from every demographic.
Third, the presence of another party in a similar space in the political spectrum.
Now I’ll have a number of people vociferously telling me that both my arguments above are proven null and void by the electoral victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. Their leaders came from citizen activism, were middle-class people who had jobs, and still managed to win handsomely. True. However, the party has not been able to replicate its success since.
Also, the Bengaluru unit of AAP has swung back into action and announced its intention to contest the upcoming BBMP elections. If BNP and AAP end up cutting into each other’s urban voter bank which is largely their support base, it will advantage national parties.
Both BNP and AAP have a similar drawback too – the lack of a state presence in Karnataka. Corporators belonging to the Congress, BJP or even the JD(S) will tell you it helps to have a state unit since it holds the purse strings.
Granted, as Srikanth points out, of the Rs 12,000 crore budget that the BBMP has, it generates Rs 5000 crore on its own and a lot of work can be done with that money. But the rate at which the state government has begun to interfere in the local administration, safeguarding the sanctity of the local government will be an uphill task.
However, BNP is also about hope. When Rajni Kothari proposed the concept of Congress System, he spoke of a dominant party surrounded by parties of pressure, which made the political system more effective for all. While the sceptic in me sees a number of hurdles for BNP in the immediate future, BNP will be a success in my book if it emerges as a party of pressure in their very first electoral exercise (though the founders vehemently disagree that would be their role).
Nothing makes political parties more accountable than an active citizenry, especially one that is even willing to enter the muck of politics. Hail hail to the rise of the missing middle.