Ripon Building
Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony

The State Legislature passed a Bill recently to the effect that mayoral elections in all municipal corporations of the State will no longer be by public franchise. Hereafter the incumbent will be selected by the majority of the councillors in each civic body. This has brought about a fresh twist to the way our cities and towns are governed, though it must be said that there are as many pros as cons in this new system. The impact of such a move on Chennai in particular is likely to be quite significant.

For our city, the concept of elections to the Corporation Council is relatively new, despite the fact that the oldest civic body in India governs it. That is because an entire generation grew up with the Corporation Council being suspended, following the muster roll scandal in the 1970s. Elections were brought back in 2001, following which we have had direct elections to the office of Mayor, polls being held along with those for the entire Council. So far, the city has had Mayoral candidates who are affiliated to one of the two dominant political parties in the State. There has also not been a situation where the Mayor is from one party and the majority in the Council is from another. This has ensured that the functioning of the Council had been relatively smooth, though dread­fully one-sided.

It would appear that the present change has come keeping electoral mathematics in mind. With the recently concluded Assembly Elections having shown that the two principal political parties are running neck to neck in vote share and two-digit margins determined the winner in many cases, it would appear that elections to the civic body too would have a similar trend. The memory of last year’s devastating floods could also cause a swing one way or the other. In such a scenario, the unthinkable may happen – an overly charismatic leader from one party could win the Mayoral election but could be faced with the opposite party winning a majority of the seats. This could lead to an impasse in the Corporation’s functioning. Under the new legislation, the Mayor will be elected from among the Councillors and so such an eventuality can be avoided.

Unfortunately for Chennai, there is every need for a charismatic leader to be elected Mayor. This is because the ­office of Mayor is not all that powerful. At present it plays ­second fiddle to the Members of Parliament and the State Legislators elected from seats in the city and also to the State Government in power. Under the present system there is every chance that a low profile personality will get elected as Mayor. That could lead to the Corporation itself being down­played in importance. The chances of fighting for civic causes with higher authorities could be seriously undermined. This could become all the more important if the party elected to power in the civic body is not the same as the one enjoying a majority in the State Legislature. Such a situation holds ­potential for conflict, one that can only be handled by a powerful personality who enjoys public support.

There is, however, a positive side to the new practice as well. Under this, the Mayor can be removed from office and a new one brought in place without having to undergo the expense of a public election. This can be a powerful incentive for an incumbent to fulfil his or her role with responsibility and also be more accountable. The new system also allows Mayors to voluntarily demit office without impacting the working of the Council.

Ultimately, it is immaterial whether a Mayor is directly elected or not. What is important is that the incumbent must ensure a city that provides a good quality of life.