Of all the ways one can speak about cities and politics, the impact of elections is for sure the most visible and the most fun. This week, Delhi went to the ballot to select its new chief minister. Of the five Indian states going to elections, Delhi is the only to be a…city—a mega-city. This means that virtually all of the electoral promises, lies, scandals and debates have been focused around the city, its people and its services.
What gets promised before elections is often the funniest bit of it all: in a bizarre move, the incumbent chief minister for example came up with the promise of ‘double decker’ flyovers, a statement most noticed and many even believed. After all, she is the one who prides herself to have ‘fixed’ Delhi’s crazy traffic problem (as bad as Palermo’s, for those who know Roberto Benigni’s Johnny Stecchino) with hundreds of single decker ones. Flyovers have become such a feature in Delhi’s landscape that no good directions is free from a reference to these mammoth structures, and in many parts of the city the ‘pillar number’ has become an integral part of business and residential addresses alike.
What actually changes in an Indian city under elections is, however, much more than newspaper headlines: in months of build-up to the vote, each neighbourhood (legal or illegal, posh or poor) gets ‘fixed’, exactly like the traffic. Bit by bit, new tarmac gets poured, new sewage drains are built, alleys in slums get cemented, gardens get cleaned, even the traffic lanes are painted fresh. The sounds of the city also change: of of a sudden Delhi started moving at the rythm of ‘Meri Dilli’ electoral anthem, played from rickshaws and trucks around every neighbourhood, and even the Delhi police introduced a childish jingle that runs at the beginning and end of every public announcement from the loudspeakers scattered around markets and crowded places.
From the double-decker flyovers to the trucks selling onions and tomatoes at subsidised prices, what materialises and competes in city elections are different ideas—with their grammar, principles, and imagery—of the ideal city, the city of the future, the city of the people and, ultimately, our city. But what does that mean in a city of 22 million, most of which seasonal migrants, where you could as easily be an agent letting elephants and camels for over-the-top parties (and living with the animals by the river), a tailor in a 80.000 people slum, a businessman who only travels by helicopter or a politician with a garden so big that it could fit a village?
Author: phrancesco o.
I am a researcher in international politics and development aid. I am drawn towards exploring organisations, institutions and urban spaces for the way people make their way in and out of them, engaging with (or simply living through) their diversity and complexity. After years of moving between London and New Delhi, I now happily live in New Delhi.