Siddaramaiah: The shepherd's boy could let Bangalore fly

Last Updated: Sat, May 18, 2013 00:01 hrs

In the 10-odd years I was in Bangalore, the politician I had come to respect the most was K Siddaramaiah. Newspapers the other day carried pictures of Kanteerava stadium in the heart of town overflowing with supporters gathered to celebrate his victory. What a pity I was not there to be part of the jollity that grips people when their favourite, in whichever walk of life, is able to get first past the post.

The culture change in the last 10 years has been benumbing and the new possibilities that lie ahead are exciting. In 2002 I came to a Bangalore that was the envy of the rest of the country and shining. It was home to an emerging IT industry that was taking the world by storm and putting the city on the map of global reckoning. The professionals who ran the IT industry were so different from the leaders of the brick-and-mortar industries in the rest of the country and gave the city a different flavour.

Not just that: these professionals had a say in public life and made a difference. A public-private partnership, Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), had the chief minister's ear and provided an umbrella under which all key utilities set targets and made themselves publicly accountable. This was not a tamasha. A professional non-governmental organisation, Public Affairs Centre, made assessments and brought out report cards showing that, contrary to what was happening in cities across the country, things in Bangalore were actually improving and its citizens endorsed this finding! In contrast, my most recent image of Bangalore is of a city bursting at the seams and sinking in its own garbage. So great was the fall that even Kolkata, the most benighted of cities in the popular national imagination, looked cleaner when I relocated there late last year.

Now let's not get carried away. Culturally, the shepherd's boy who made good - the earthy, homespun Mr Siddaramaiah - is not going to take up exactly where the urbane S M Krishna left off. Since he patronised BATF, the godfather behind his successor regime, mean and vengeful, dropped it immediately.

Bangalore does not need mollycoddling. With its army of globetrotting professionals, all it needs is a chance to do its own thing in light of its own perception. All it asks for is a city administration that listens to its citizens, who can then do the rest. Hope lives eternal in the heart of the engaged citizen and, a few months before the polls, a new organisation, Bangalore Political Action Committee, has come up.

Led by many high-profile faces from the corporate and professional worlds, it tried to get "people like us" to register and vote. It even endorsed some candidates and a handful of them won. The meeting point between them and Mr Siddaramaiah was that they primarily looked for clean candidates to endorse, and one of the first things the new chief minister has promised is a clean Cabinet. It will be enough if he can deliver on that one point.

What struck me about the city when I first came to live there was an amalgam of several flavours - a pleasant lingering colonial legacy, a large professional middle class, highly energised civil society and the innate decency of the average Kannadiga. It had the same colonial past as Kolkata, but while the city by the river was rapidly losing its cosmopolitan character, the one in the silicon plateau was building on it.

Then something happened. The roads got overcrowded; there were too many yellow-number-plate cars with rude drivers ferrying call centre staff. A succession of terrible chief ministers, each worse than the previous one, seemed determined to drive away all expansion projects of large IT firms. Soon Chennai and Hyderabad took over lead positions - one as the preferred IT destination and the other as a front runner in urban governance.  

If wishes were horses and Mr Siddaramaiah could let Bangalore fly, the city could regain its earlier elan. All great cities have a soul and when the chance comes after troubled times, it is crucial to rediscover and take it forward - not just remain cosmopolitan and civil, but get a handle on garbage and pollution; use water wisely; do away with a lot of cars and usher in a European-style public transport system; and, of course, continue to serve excellent coffee.  

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