Miss Mumbai AWOL on Election Day

06/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mumbaiyya spirit - it's sassy, undaunted, some parts flashy, some parts classy and very driven. Or at least that's the facade. Sure, Mumbai and its people are all of this, but there's more. Miss Mumbai has a side to her that's less publicized. It's on display in the lives and faces of many of the her inhabitants, but it gets less play since it doesn't sell as well and it's less convenient for the politicians.

On her darker, more depressing days, Miss Mumbai is not sass and style. She is resignation, despair and frustration - resignation to the daily slog, despair that the city of dreams has a nightmarish infrastructure and frustration because everyone knows that if the city can improve, it won't.

Mumbai's turn at the polls this week was meant to be an opportunity for the city's famed survival spirit to show herself. With the fear, helplessness and anger of 26/11 alive in their hearts, Mumbaikars were expected to come out in that undaunted way that is expected of them and 'vote for change'. So what if urban India was notorious for skipping out on voting day? Miss Mumbai had shown that she meant business when refused to simply dust herself off and get on with business as usual after the terror attacks of November 2008. She had dropped the mask of the bright, glint-in-the-eye urban girl and gave full reign to the disgust simmering below the surface. She had kicked up a fuss - thrown a tantrum on the streets on South Mumbai as the city's youngsters waved placards around and shouted that they'd had enough. She came on India's news channels and pointed angry fingers at an incompetent state government. She even held genteel candle light vigils and called for peace in the midst of the anger and fear.

But four months since November, Miss Mumbai seems to have decided that all her indignance and fire are wasted on this lot of politicians. After months of railing at the system and demanding change, she barely turned up for the elections. 43%. That's the percentage of Mumbai's voters who turned up to vote in what was being plugged as India's big chance to choose change over the status quo. Despite the hype all around them, 57% of Mumbai's voters decided they didn't want to make the trek out to vote. Commentators are shocked - do they not care? Is urban India so stubborn in its spoilt city ways that it won't vote even in the aftermath of a three-day terror seige?

Well, maybe Miss Mumbai is spoilt and maybe she is all talk and no action. but what about the politicians? What 'change' were they talking about when they sold themselves to voters? What was the big 'decision' they were urging their constituents to go out and make? The names and faces on the ballot were all the same. Even worse, the campaign speak was all the same as well. Mumbai's politicians certainly haven't lacked for opportunities to show they give a damn - the Dawood Ibrahim orchestrated serial blasts of 1993, the floods of 2005, the seven train blasts in 2006...all of these were opportunities to take the city into hand and give her an administration that served her potential. Instead what Mumbai has got has been right-wing instigated anti-Valentine's day protests and violent attacks on North Indian immigrants who have poured into Mumbai since the 19th century to find work. From the centrists and left-wingers there's been inaction and weakness.

In a country where the 'no' vote doesn't have a place on the ballot, this was the best Mumbai could do. How else do you tell the political class that they're not worth the voting effort?

Miss Mumbai needs some inspiration if she is expected to inspire. There's only so much lift you can get from Mumbai's innate cultural and financial hyper-activity. After a while, the potholes and electricity outages, the bureaucratic delays and administrative callousness and the laissez-faire kaam chalao ('go with the flow') attitude will deflate even the most spirited of cities. In the 2004 elections, Mumbai's voting turnout was 47%. It's fallen by 4% this year. I don't claim that voters are blameless - many of us simply don't care and are happy to whine and make no bigger contribution than that. But the larger blame lies with a political class that cannot find it in itself to grab some magic dust from Miss Mumbai and to fire up their constituents with real action.