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Mainstream, VOL LI No 22, May 18, 2013

Civil Society Initiatives: The Case of BPAC in Karnataka

Saturday 18 May 2013


by M. Manisha

In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Karnataka, there was an interesting initiative by eminent citizens of Bangalore called the Bangalore Political Action Committee or BPAC.

The BPAC team has some of the most eminent personalities from the world of business, sports and entertainment, including Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, T.A. Mohandas Pai, Prakash Bidappa, Ashwini Nachappa, Charu Sharma to name only a few. It also has the support of other distinguished persons such as Infosys Mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy. The BPAC, as Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the President of the organi-sation, points out, aims at engaging the citizens of Bangalore to create a transparent and accountable system of governance1—to begin with, in the city of Bangalore. The members of the BPAC strongly feel that the indifference of the people, particularly the urban middle class, has given rise to a corrupt and unaccountable system. The result is poor governance, corruption and maladministration, as well as poor quality of life for the residents of the city.

The BPAC endeavours to achieve its goals primarily through three means. First, it seeks to create awareness amongst the people of Bangalore to involve themselves in the political process. The starting point of this would be to ensure voter registration and encourage voting. Though its members feel that Municipal Corporation elections will be more important in terms of the agenda that it seeks to achieve, it has nevertheless made an earnest beginning with the State Assembly elections. It launched an extensive campaign to register voters, mobilise the youth, etc.

Secondly, the BPAC seeks to identify suitable candidates across party lines and support/fund their election campaign. To this effect it has asked citizens to send in names of candidates who they feel should be supported by it.

It also intends to conduct audits of represen-tatives, once they are elected to ensure their accountability to the people.2 In the process, it seeks to create the bases for efficient and transparent governance that is based on people’s initiatives

The goals of the BPAC are laudable and given the credentials of its members, it sounds credible. But, the question is: can it make a difference?

Urban Voter and Political Apathy

Poor turnout of the urban, educated, middle income group population has been a recurring feature of Karnataka’s electoral politics. In the 2013 Assembly elections their voting percentage has increased to 58 per cent as against the State average of nearly 71 per cent. This is a little better than the 2008 Assembly elections in Karnataka, when only 47.5 per cent of the electorate in Bangalore Urban voted as against the State average of 64.9. Since the 1980s, in every Assembly and parliamentary elections held in Karnataka, the lowest percentage of voting comes from Urban Bangalore, which is one of the most educated constituencies in the country.3 The political apathy of the urban voter has been a subject matter of many debates. There are, however, two significant explanations for the urban middle class’ disinterest that needs to be mentioned.

Firstly, the political apathy of the urban middle class is explained in terms of its cynicism for the political process and politicians which it deems to be corrupt and inefficient. A section of the urban middle class, therefore, alienates itself from the political process. Even those who do not distance themselves from politics find the candidates too removed from their own lived-in realities and do not relate to them. Hence, they are least interested in voting.4 Weak party organisation has further exacerbated this problem in thickly populated urban centres. The citizens are rarely in contact with the candidates that the political parties put up and seldom aware of the agenda that they set out. Other organisations, which could act as surrogates or via media for political parties, too do not have an active presence in the urban areas in India.

More importantly, however, it has been argued that the middle class has the wherewithal, including the money and influences, to gain access to the state’s resources.5 The existing system, notwithstanding its problems, serves their needs. They are thus not averse to the status quo.

Changed Context?

The improved turnout of voters in the 2013 elections raises interesting questions. What are the reasons behind the improved turnout? Has the citizens’ initiative in creating voter awareness been successful? If so, how and, more importantly, why?

There have been several attempts in the past to encourage citizen participation in different parts of the country, including Bangalore, where NGOs and civil society groups have carried out campaigns to increase voter turnout. Has the sustained campaign by the middle class, urban intelligentsia, supported by the media, contri-buted to this process? Perhaps, it would be useful to look into the objective conditions that gave rise citizens’ initiatives like the BPAC.

The emergence and thrust of the middle class citizens’ initiative during the recent Assembly elections have to be understood in the changed context in which the middle class exists and seeks to function. It may be argued that there has been a perceptible shift in the way in which it perceives itself as a political force and the nature of political engagement that it concep-tualises.

There is a growing realisation amongst India’s ‘materialist middle class’ that private initiative, influence and money power, which had helped it to gain the resources of the state, may not suffice any longer. This is partly because of the fact that the needs of the middle class itself has expanded in the last two decades—their need for public goods has now become as urgent as the need for private goods—and private initiative has failed to satisfy them. After all, the need for good roads, uninterrupted supply of water and electricity, pollution-free air, garbage cleaning are problems that cannot be solved solely by private initiative The costs incurred in accruing ‘public goods’ through private initiatives has also caused much discontent. Further, with the mushrooming of private enterprises that cater to the middle-class needs, the necessity to regulate private enterprise has become imperative. Grudgingly therefore, the urban middle class has begun to appreciate the role of the state, despite their reservations about an interventionist state.

Equally important is the fact that the middle class now seems to be looking to reclaim its ‘place’ in the Indian polity. It has always been in the forefront of political movements in the country, be it the nationalist movement in pre-independence India or the JP movement during the Emergency period. However, the political history of India has taken a different trajectory since the late 1980s. The wave of democratisation, especially in the post-Mandal period, has diminished their importance, at least in institutional politics, as they are too diverse and fragmented to constitute a single political block of any significance. The middle class is looking for ways through which it can assert its supremacy. In the past one year alone, the country has witnessed the large scale partici-pation of this class in at least two major movements: Anna Hazare’s movement for an effective Lokpal Bill, and the protest against the gangrape of a young student in Delhi.

The middle class is also imbued with the idea that unless the educated, urban middle class leads the political process, there are little chances of social and economic improvement. They feel that for far too long have they allowed other groups to lead with disastrous consequences. India needs a politically engaged middle class as a corrective force.6 This has generated a sense of urgency amongst them.

Immediate Reasons 

The delimitation exercise of 2008 has had a significant impact on the composition of the Assembly constituencies in Karnataka. The State has about 70 urban Assembly constituencies. Together, they constitute nearly one-third of the total strength of the Karnataka State Legislative Assembly. Almost half of the urban constituencies (28) are in Bangalore city and the rest spread across the State. A majority of the electorate in each of these 70 constituencies constitutes those who can be categorised as urban dwellers.7 The density of the voters in Bangalore Urban constituency is also higher than the rest of the State. Further, disaggregation of data reveals that nearly 49 lakh voters in the city of Bangalore belong to the age-group of 20-30 years. Bangalore Urban district has the largest number of voters (15.17 lakhs) in the 20-29 age-groups. Notwith-standing the dynamics of caste politics, there is a realisation that young, first-time and urban voters can swing the results in at least 28 of the 224 Assembly seats.8 This has had a salutary effect on the citizens’ activism in Bangalore and may have given an immediate impetus to the citizens’ movement.

Urban centres in India have become sources of revenue generation. However, the political clout of the cities has been limited. As eminent political scientist Ashutosh Varshney points out, “the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside is predominantly a site of legitimacy and power”.9 This is best represented in the case of Bangalore. As T.V. Mohandas Pai, Vice-President of the BPAC, and Chairman, Manipal Universal Learning, points out, “Bangalore with 15 per cent of the State’s population makes up 60 per cent of the State GDP.”10 However, the public spending on Bangalore has not kept pace with its needs

Given its increased political presence and the realisation that it can make a difference in at least a quarter of the Assembly seats, the middle class is now hopeful of establishing a state structure that is committed to correcting this imbalance. The particular location of Bangalore as a quintessential middle-class city with a large concentration of highly-educated and qualified young people,11 has also contributed to the genesis of the citizens’ movement. It is in this context that movements such as the BPAC have emerged and need to be understood.

Move Towards Success?

Despite their good intentions and considerable success, citizens’ movements need to address certain issues.12 Most citizens’ movements, including that of the BPAC, often have a limited vision. The BPAC’s agenda in Bangalore, for instance, indicates their desire to improve
urban Bangalore and establish it as a world class city comparable to London and New York with adequate infrastructure. While this may be a desirable goal, the long-term objective, of putting in place a democratic system that channelises the needs of different groups of people, synthesises them and converts them into viable policy decisions—needs to be factored in the vision of civil society initiatives. Often, civil society initiatives overlook the importance of systemic changes in their euphoria to achieve immediate goals.

The need for the citizens’ movement to be inclusive can never be overemphasised. While the educated, upper middle class constituencies may constitute its core support, citizens’ movements cannot rely on them exclusively. The expansion of the urban centres both in terms of geographical area and the socio-economic groups that they accommodate, necessitates an expansion of the definition of “middle class”. Concomitantly, it would be prudent for civil society initiatives to broaden their idea of “development”. In the case of Bangalore, the explosion of the city in the last two decades has meant that people living in suburban parts of Bangalore and rural areas adjoining it, regard themselves as its residents. Incidentally, there has been a greater increase in the number of voters in the outskirts of the city due to migration. These constituencies have to be amalgamated into the support base of civil society movements to be of significance.

Citizens’ movements, such as the BPAC, may gain tremendously by mapping the linkages between voting and governance. The urban middle class is not unaware of the intrinsic value of voting. It is now important for civil society initiatives to demonstrate the vital linkages between voting and governance in the long run. This has to be incorporated into their strategy and plan of action.

The biggest asset of civil society movements, that is, citizens’ support, can also prove to be the greatest weakness, given their fickle nature and history of political apathy. This is especially true in the post-election period when the euphoria for concrete, realisable goal has dissipated. Hence, the need for non-controversial plans that are devoid of moral positioning cannot be overemphasised.

Finally, civil society movements must adopt a cautious approach in articulating their views. Generalisations about individuals and institutions built over a period of time may prove to be counter-productive in the long run. A pragmatic approach for civil society movements would be to factor in the complexities of administering the political system of a diverse nation. A nuanced understanding of political intricacies would not only help in charting out a sustainable course of action, but also create the substantive intellectual foundation for future successes. In this context it would be prudent to take into account the paradigm shift that has taken place in the idiom of Indian politics—from politics as a ‘service’ to politics as an ‘enterprise’. The enterprise of politics requires a new set of rules and code of conduct that is based on abiding by the rules, transparency and accountability—the essential pillars of democracy. In the last analysis, civil society initiatives have to synergise with the administrative and political process to produce concrete results that go beyond electoral verdicts.

The larger challenge is to bring about systemic changes. These have to begin with changes in the party organisations, election funding, legislative functioning, police and bureaucratic reforms. This is a tall order and a long drawn process and it is precisely here that the citizenship movements can play a crucial role. They are in a position to provide leadership, to create awareness, to generate pressure, to establish a strong ethical and transparent system, wherein the political elite have no other way than to give in to their demands. This would be the ultimate measure of their success.

Long live citizens’ movements!

Long live Indian democracy!

[Some views expressed in this article have also been expresses elsewhere by the author.]


1. See the website of BPAC,

2. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw in “We The People”, NDTV 24x7, telecast on April 21, 2013.

3. Sandeep Shastri, ‘Towards Explaining the Voters‘ Mandate: An Analysis of the Karnataka Assembly Elections, 1995”, Bangalore.

4. Similar views have been expressed by the suthor in her other articles on the subject.

5. Sandeep Shatstri, “Why Urban Voters do not Register their Votes”, Mainstream, May 5, 2009.

6. Jim Yardley, “Protests Awaken a Goliath in India”, New York Times, 2011.

7. Many of these constituencies are considered to be Vokkaliga dominated.

8. Atul Chaturvedi, “47L young voters can make or break city poll aspirants”, Bangalore Mirror, March 22, 2013.

9. Ashutosh Varshney, The Indian Express, August 25, 2011.

10. T. Mohandas Pai in “Karnataka Competitiveness—Has Time Come For An Image Makeover?”, CII Karnataka Annual Members Day, March 15, 2012.

11. Bangalore has emerged as the ‘Information Technology capital’. The city has the largest number of R&D Labs (375). Nearly 15,000 doctorates are residents of the city and 400 of the Fortune 500 global companies are either located in the city or have a connection with the city.

12. Similar views have been expressed by the author in her article “Are Citizens Movement relevant?”, The Times of India, April 23, 2013.

Dr M. Manisha is an Associate Professor, Jain University.

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