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Suman Bery: Smart politics for smart cities

The Delhi Assembly election points to new possibilities for India's urban politics

Suman Bery 

Suman Bery

In these columns, I normally avoid commenting on domestic economic or political developments, and instead concentrate on global or regional developments that impact on India's economic destiny.

However, I happened to be in Delhi over this last week, a period that encompassed the end of campaigning for the Delhi Assembly election, the vote itself and the declaration of the astonishing results. Equally important, I was in a position to catch a small portion of the tidal wave of commentary that accompanied the electoral sweep in a way that is difficult when abroad.

The scale of the electoral victory by the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, (67 seats out of a total of 70 for any Rip van Winkles who may just have tuned in) prompts a number of reflections, both on the aspirations of the electorate as also the political technology that was on display.

In her recent contribution to these pages ("What next for the Aam Aadmi Party"), Aditi Phadnis has deftly articulated both the political opportunities and the pitfalls that now await the party. I would like here to extend her analysis by applying some perspectives that I have absorbed as a member of Shell's scenarios team over the last three years1.

Two perspectives from the scenarios are particularly helpful: the growing importance of urbanisation and the impact of the communications revolution. On its own, neither of these trends is particularly novel. Most readers know that urbanisation is a defining feature of our age, with more than half of humankind now living in cities and another 2.5 billion people likely to be added to cities by 20502. By way of comparison, only 14 per cent of the (much smaller) global population lived in cities in 1900.

The United Nations calculates that more than a third of this increase will occur in just three countries: India, China and Nigeria, with the largest absolute increase to take place in India - 404 million urban dwellers. China is second, adding around 300 million to its cities.

Equally, we all know that the revolution in communications technology has increased connectivity on a scale unimaginable even a decade ago. While India is perhaps not at the forefront in this transformation, it is certainly among those countries most profoundly affected by the availability of these technologies, embodied in the humble mobile phone.

The Shell scenarios refer to a "connectivity paradox" where hyper-connectivity facilitates individual empowerment, while also undermining established canons of governance. In its words, "economic, political and social volatility have always been with us, but this unprecedented degree of connectivity empowers individual players". In virtually all societies, the connectivity revolution is generating a crisis of authority and of governance, as the sway of elites is challenged by an unaccustomed degree of scrutiny, transmitted like wildfire through channels outside traditional forms of control. The longer-term consequences for political order are as yet unknown.

What India adds to this rich global brew is the distinctive spice of youth and a political system committed to orderly constitutional transfer of power. As against that, what it has lacked is true political representation at the city level, making it difficult to gauge the needs and the aspirations of urban voters. Indeed it has been a long-standing belief of mine that while the Chinese leadership generally has been more comfortable in managing urban politics, the Indian political class has been much more attuned to the needs of rural constituents. This is hardly surprising given the past preponderance of rural voters in the total.

This is what makes the Delhi Assembly election result so fascinating. While there is a distinguished tradition of academic thought on the vitality of political and community life in India's cities, the focus is on issues of caste, religion and identity, both for good and for ill, and on the fragmentation of urban politics.

By contrast, an early reading of the Delhi results suggests a city able to come together on a common platform of service delivery, and able to see such improvements as potentially good for all rather than as what economists would call a "zero-sum game", where providing for the have-nots implies loss for the haves.

Of equal interest are two other aspects of the election: the content of the platform and the effective use of social media. Friends whose local knowledge I would trust believe that the AAP's triumph was largely due to old-style constituency politics: the willingness to go door-to-door, to listen to local issues and grievances, and to articulate specific solutions customised to the circumstances.

In many respects, this is not very different from the old-style "machine" politics of cities like Chicago and New York in the United States, or the role of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai as described by Ms Phadnis in her article. What was intriguing, though, was the headline issues that the AAP campaign promised action on: affordable water and power; security of house tenure in so-called "unauthorised colonies"; women's safety; and most unusually, free Wi-fi access for an initial 30 minutes. The last in particular testifies to the importance and power of the connectivity revolution mentioned earlier.

But if the agenda was defined through old-fashioned door-to-door constituency politics, its effective communication was largely dependent on savvy use of cheap social media, which succeeded in creating a bandwagon effect in a small, dense electorate.

Based on the overwhelming mandate evoked by these promises, one can only assume that these are things that matter to a wide cross section of the city, and not just to an impoverished underclass. The overall picture that emerges is of an impatient, a striving city fed up with the sluggish performance of state entities and their erstwhile political patrons, willing to take a chance on a new untested party out of frustration with the establishment.

It remains to be seen if the Delhi election is a flash in the pan or the beginning of a new style of urban politics. What is certain that both the election and the performance of the incoming government will be the subject of intense scrutiny and analysis for a long time to come.

1.See "New Lens Scenarios":
The writer is chief economist, Shell International

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First Published: Sun, February 15 2015. 22:50 IST