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Should India need directly elected mayors? [Mains Article]

A popularly elected mayor with a fixed tenure also offers more stability in governance as the person is not dependent on the elected members of the council or on the local or state level political leadership for his survival in office.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
October 30, 2017


  • Introduction
  • Recent developments in this regard
  • Present status
  • Arguments in favour of directly elected mayors
  • Arguments against directly elected mayors
  • Challenges ahead
  • What needs to do?
  • Should directly elected mayoral system be made mandatory for all municipalities?
  • Way Ahead

Should India need directly elected mayors? [Mains Article]

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GS (M) Paper-1: “urbanization, their problems and their remedies.”
GS (M) Paper-2: “Statutory, regulatory and various quasi-judicial bodies”



  • There are multiple reasons for India’s urban miseries, one of the underlying problems is the absence of powerful and politically accountable leadership in the city.
  • Understandably, the most publicised urban governance reform is that of having a directly elected Mayor.


Recent developments in this regard:

  • Recent reports indicate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on this reform and has asked the Urban Development Ministry to consider ways of introducing it.
  • Mayoral reform has now made its way into Parliament with Shashi Tharoor introducing a private member’s bill to amend the Constitution for strengthening local governments.
  • This bill plays an important role in shaping parliamentary and public discourse. The bill aims to establish strong leadership for cities by providing for a directly elected and empowered Mayor.
  • It also touches the right notes on other key urban governance reforms such as mandating the constitution of area sabhas and ward committees and strengthening the devolution of functions to local governments.
  • Bill seeks to mandates the direct election of the Mayor, fixes the Mayor’s term to be coterminous with that of the municipality, and makes the Mayor the executive head of the municipality.

Present status:

  • Most Indian cities still follow the Commissionerate system of municipal administration, a British legacy, in which the State government-appointed Commissioner is the executive head of the city while the Mayor has a largely ceremonial role. This is an anomaly.
  • The passage of the 74th Constitution Amendment in 1992 resulted in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) — Nagar Panchayats, Municipal Councils and Municipal Corporations becoming a constitutionally recognised “institution of self-government”. However, it did not prescribe the manner of election, tenure or powers of the Mayors/Chairpersons of ULBs.
  • At present, six states – Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – provide for mayors that are elected directly by voters for a five-year term. However, they remain mere figureheads with limited financial and functional independence. The actual power continues to lie with the state government, which runs the city through the municipal commissioner.


Arguments in favour of directly elected mayors:

  • Our cities have a weak and fragmented institutional architecture in which multiple agencies with different bosses pull the strings of city administration.
  • A popularly elected mayor with a fixed tenure also offers more stability in governance as the person is not dependent on the elected members of the council or on the local or state level political leadership for his survival in office.
  • A stable leadership can also afford to roll out long term plans that will ensure major changes in the cities political and economic landscape.
  • In fact studies have shown that cities with elected mayors have more stability and change in leadership in such cities is 50% lower than in those with nominated or indirectly elected mayors.
  • Vesting the executive powers of the municipality with the Mayor would be a very positive move.

Arguments against directly elected mayors:

  • In a democracy, executive power should vest with a person or a body that is democratically accountable. However, this does not necessitate the Mayor to be directly elected. After all, we do not directly elect the Prime Minster or the Chief Minister. Still they enjoy wide powers and are democratically accountable.
  • Mayors do not enjoy similar powers not because they are not directly elected, but because State governments exercise enormous control over ULBs — politically, administratively and financially.
  • For responsive urban governance, we need a powerful political executive in the city with more autonomy, whether directly or indirectly elected.
  • An empowered executive at the city can also be achieved through an indirectly elected “Mayor-in-Council” system in which, much like the cabinet system in Parliament, the Mayor has to maintain the support of the majority of the council.
  • There is little evidence to suggest that directly elected mayors are better. In fact, States like Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh which introduced directly elected Mayors reversed the decision due to the difficulties posed by such a system.
  • More cities should perhaps institute a directly elected mayor. But making it the only way through which Mayors can be elected limits the options of cities and States.

Challenges ahead:

  • State governments do not wish to delegate more authority to city-level institutions. Often, urban resources are transferred to rural areas in the name of development. Even if the mayor is directly elected, the state governments can refuse to devolve power and resources, effectively reducing him to a figurehead.
  • If a directly elected mayor belongs to a party in minority in the municipality, it becomes difficult to get other municipality members on board in taking decisions. This was witnessed in Himachal Pradesh, which ultimately led to the scrapping of this system.
  • Municipal commissioner also, sometimes, becomes hurdle. Even if some powers are delegated to the municipality, the state governments have in place municipal commissioners to perform the executive functions, again cutting the mayor to size, the nature of mayoral election notwithstanding.
  • Also, a mayor executing projects will tend to gain popularity at the expense of the local legislator whose job is to legislate and scrutinise the performance of the executive. A legislator will always see the directly elected and empowered mayor as a potential future rival and will do everything in his command to undercut his authority.
  • It is also widely felt that elected mayors may blur the lines between the three tiers of government: the Union, the states and the local self governments.
  • Bill gives the Mayor veto powers over some of the council’s resolutions and also lets the Mayor nominate members of the Mayor-in-Council and vest it with powers. Essentially, it centralises power in the hands of the Mayor and his nominees and creates a political executive which neither enjoys the support of the elected council nor needs its acquiescence for taking decisions.
  • Besides direct elections, a fixed tenure should be ensured for Mayors. One or two years, as provided presently, is not sufficient to ensure the holistic development of urban areas.
  • Also, frequent changing of mayors results in discontinuation of policies and wastage of scarce resources. Preferably, the Mayor’s term should be coterminous with that of the municipality, and the Mayor should be made the executive head of the municipality.

What needs to do?

  • State governments should take up this issue seriously and confer necessary powers upon mayor to effectively discharge his duties.
  • To avoid conflict between elected mayor and municipal commissioner, mayor may be made the executive head of the municipality.
  • Additionally, mayor may also be given the power to “authorize the payment and repayment of money relating to the Municipality”.
  • To check the spread of vested interests, mayor may also be vested with the power to veto a resolution passed by the municipality.
  • Voter awareness is also necessary as it is the only thing that will drive them to vote for a legislator based on his performance in the state assembly or Parliament and vote for the mayor and councillors based on their executive performance. This ensures that there exists separation between the two.

Should directly elected mayoral system be made mandatory for all municipalities?

  • India is one of the few countries where the powers of the local government are laid out in the federal Constitution. However, local government is still under List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Hence only the State is empowered to make laws on this subject.
  • In such a federal system, constitutional provisions should only lay down the broad institutional framework for local governments. But since States are often reluctant to devolve functions to local government, it makes sense to mandate such devolution in the Constitution.
  • However, the Constitution may not be the ideal instrument for prescribing the manner in which the head of a local government is elected.

Way Ahead:

  • India’s stagnating urban governance system needs major reform, but it shouldn’t be driven by using a sledgehammer. Creating an empowered and accountable political executive for cities is important, but a directly elected mayor should be a political option, not a constitutional decree.
[Ref: Live Mint, The Hindu, Times of India, Hindustan Times]


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