The Prime MINISTER, three Union cabinet rank ministers, including the home minister, the BJP’s national president and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh dashed in and out of Hyderabad in the last week of November. Days ahead of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections, even as hundreds of thousands of protesting farmers were converging on Delhi, the star campaigners for the BJP were in Hyderabad promising to change the city’s name, carry out surgical strikes against anti-nationals in the old city, rid it of its Nizami culture and install a mini-Bharat in its place, waive traffic challans and offer a one-time Rs 25,000 compensation for flood-affected households. It had the air of a re-enactment of the drama before the 1948 accession of Hyderabad to India — this time as Hindu nationalist liberation.
Thanks to the authoritarian centralisation initiated by the Congress high command in the 1970s, municipal elections in India ceased to be about municipal affairs a long time ago. When municipal elections returned to Hyderabad after the Emergency, it was a completely new configuration. The city had witnessed a series of riots. Campaigns led by the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Bharatiya Janata Sangh and its successor BJP had polarised neighbourhoods along religious lines.
The then chief minister, N T Rama Rao, of the Telugu Desam Party led the campaign for the 1986 municipal election in his characteristic dramatic style — clad in saffron trousers and rumi topi. The campaign and the polling were marred by violence. The AIMIM wrested the mayor’s post with a mere 36 seats in the 100-member house. The winning slogan was “Hamara shehar, hamara mayor (Our city, our mayor)”. The rest of the house was divided among the TDP, the BJP, the Congress (INC) and a few other contenders.
Since that fateful year, municipal elections in Hyderabad have remained wedded to aspirations for assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Corporators rarely have a voice — within their parties and across party lines in the corporation. The AIMIM has had to thrice cede mayorship — in 2002, when the TDP issued an executive order to hold direct election for the post, in 2007, when the INC increased the floor strength to 150 by amalgamating Hyderabad with 12 satellite municipalities to create the GHMC and, finally, in 2016, when the TRS swept the elections. But it has always held on to its 36 to 40 seats. When the remaining seats are favourably divided, the AIMIM can negotiate with the leading party to share the mayor’s position for half the term. In a bad year, it cedes the post to the ruling party. But it guards at a minimum its 36 seats with its life, for these corporators ensure the party’s presence in the assembly and the Lok Sabha.
Last week, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) was reduced from 99 to 56 seats. The BJP increased its tally from five to 48 and the AIMIM from 40 to 44. The BJP has broken the spatial contiguity of the AIMIM and the TRS seats and has a toehold in many assembly constituencies in the city.
In the campaign, the AIMIM spoke for the hyperlocal and the Hyderabadi Muslim, the TRS for the sons of the soil and the Telangana region, and the BJP for the ultra-nationalist Hindu. Between the BJP and its voters, a vote in this municipal election is a promise of a vote in the assembly election in 2023.
How did the city get so flattened? The reasons are not far to seek.
First, the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh was a break in caste alliances. The Telangana OBCs (until then with the Andhra leadership of the TDP), the Telangana Reddis (until then with the INC) and the Telangana SCs (distributed between the INC and the TDP) moved en masse to the TRS. The new identity of Telangana seemed large enough to accommodate all their competing aspirations. Disenchanted now, and finding no promise in the INC, they have begun to migrate to the BJP. These realigned caste networks from rural Telangana seem to have voted against the TRS. Unless the TRS as the dominant actor at the regional scale learns to live with and allow other alliances to foster other identities and their material interests, this will only escalate.
Second, the city of Hyderabad, holding a third of Telangana’s population and spread over 1,000 square km, is a very heterogeneous area. It can now be divided into four distinct regions. The sprawling periphery of gated communities and slums, the congested old growth of the public sector led-Hyderabad, the high-rise IT-led financial district and Cyberabad area, governed by the bureaucracy and CEOs, and the ever more congested old city of Hyderabad. It is too diverse to be held in one single municipality. House proceedings rarely, if ever, discuss anything of significance. From strategy, visioning and infrastructure creation to hyperlocal municipal affairs, everything is routed through and by the state government. This centralisation of everything in the state secretariat has led to a lot of resentment in the city.
Hyderabad, an urban agglomeration of 10 million population, is today staring at multiple risks — from floods to contagions to political unrest. Political opportunism and short-termism can jeopardise the entire region. Municipalising the gated communities and industrial area local authorities, reorganising the municipal units for coherent governance and meaningful local democracy and re-territorialising the region by delegating strategic authority and devolving resources to the metropolitan development authority can contain the risk and set spatial boundaries around it. This needs a revisioning of political purpose and a vote of confidence for constitutionalism.
Call it Bhagyanagar or Hyderabad, a divided and unequal city, characterised by lack of trust among its residents escalates risk for everyone. Hopefully, the terrible year of 2020 will give us the wisdom and resources to rebuild a democratic and a just city.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 9, 2020 under the title ‘Flattening the city’. The writer is director, Hyderabad Urban Lab