Imagine a politician calling you up and asking whether you have any civic problems that have to be resolved. What if you get regular WhatsApp messages from your neta to check if the streetlight across your road is shining and not on the blink, or whether the garbage van has reported on time?
How would you feel if your complaints get a response instantly and are solved within a day or two, times out of 10 times?
This is no work of fiction or any ‘Thalaiva thriller’ that solves tomorrow’s problems yesterday and today’s concerns before they are even born.
This is reality in Ward No 58, New Thippasandara (Hosathippasandra), in Bengaluru city, where a digital revolution has been on for a while, propelled by the Ward’s commander-in-chief Shilpa Reddy (32), a first-time corporator associated with the Indian National Congress.
Her weapon – WhatsApp. Her target – your needs. Her Man Friday – her husband Abhilash Reddy.
Elected in 2015, Shilpa defeated the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator Sumitra Vijayakumar by 1,698 votes. Incidentally, she had lost to Sumitra in 2010 by 820 votes.
Falling under the CV Raman Nagar Assembly constituency, Ward No 58 has around 36,000 voters. The main localities of the ward include Michael Palya, HAL III Stage, Seethappa Colony, Venkateshwara Colony, Puttappa Colony, Bhumireddy Colony, Annayappa Colony, LIC Colony, Bairasandra, Krishnappa Garden, KG Colony, Garkamanta Palya, Binnamangala, BM Kaval, 515 Colony, Patel Seethappa Colony and New Tippasandra.
Lessons from her first loss
Shilpa, a mother of two, says she was upset when she learnt of her loss in 2010, but the lessons she learnt from it were enough to make her battle-ready for the 2015 elections to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) or Corporation.
“The loss made me focus on Ward No 58 more keenly and, along with my husband and his friends, we planned the strategies silently. In the next five years, we mapped all the problems and needs of the Ward. We kept the plans ready and in 2015 my manifesto spoke only about the core issues of the Ward. No big announcements,” says Shilpa.
After her 2015 victory, her husband Abhilash became the face of the Ward.
“The very first day after the election results were declared, we were out to clear garbage that had piled up in the area. The idea was to stop people from dumping garbage in open places. This was such a menace here. I would pack dinner for Abhilash and his friends, and they would sit in vehicles and keep a watch through late nights, to prevent people from dumping garbage on roads in different areas. This went on for over a month and we managed to give a facelift to many areas. Garbage collection is now door-to-door,” smiles Shilpa.
BBMP stakeholders part of WhatsApp groups
There are around 10 active WhatsApp groups for the Ward, and what makes them a hit is that people’s queries get an immediate response. Abhilash has identified his trusted lieutenants to handle the issues, and he monitors them on an hourly basis.
“We added all the officials concerned to various groups. The stakeholders coming in made all the difference. So engineers of Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM) and Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) are all part of our groups. We have added the traffic police as well. To address the problems of people instantly, especially those of senior citizens, is our top priority,” says Abhilash.
He credits the success of his missions to a team of his friends and well-wishers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get down to work if the situation warrants it.
Abhilash unclogs the drains in a flooded road.
“I have done odd jobs before entering politics. I have no hang-ups about clearing the garbage or unclogging drains if the road is flooded. Politics is becoming a 24x7 job. With the help of technology you can do wonders,” says Abhilash.
‘Governance at our doorstep’
This correspondent chose residents at random from various WhatsApp groups of Ward 58 to hear their views. Surprisingly, there were no negative comments at all.
“We have suddenly seen the politics of accountability. We have interacted with the BBMP in the past as well. But, for the first time ever, we are experiencing speed in the resolution of issues,” says Jayashree Ganesan, a retired banker.
NS Mani, a retired engineer, says the corporator’s WhatsApp movement is much better than the groups of many RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations).
“It sometimes surprises me that all our calls are answered. Also, the corporator is very people-friendly. We have never had this kind of an experience. We are lucky to have such a corporator,” says Mani.
“While Shilpa handles the administrative part of being a corporator, Abhilash is the man on the ground. When we post a concern often it gets a response instantly. This is a great revolution,” says Meenakshi Prabhu, a homemaker.
Ananth Ram, a cable TV operator in the area, has been helping the couple address people’s problems. His regular interactions with his cable customers (around 5,000) have come in handy for the corporator, to get feedback from the ground.
“I am acting as a bridge between the people and the corporator. It is my way of doing social service. The WhatsApp groups are getting popular by the day as people post even the smallest issue here,” says Ananth.
NK Narayanan Nair, a retired employee of a private firm, residing in Krishnappa Garden, gives an example of the efficiency of this power couple. Never in the past had the BBMP asphalted one of the two roads leading to his house.
“We called the corporator’s team and brought to their notice the neglect of the road and drains in our locality. A solution came within couple of weeks. We still can’t believe that the drains were desilted and the road blacktopped by the BBMP in no time,” says Narayanan, whose son is a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force.
‘Shilpa’s people-connect model inspiring’
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) Secretary PC Vishnunath, in charge of the Mysuru division of the Congress, overseeing various activities ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections in Karnataka, says the innovate people-connect model adopted by Shilpa and her team in Ward No 58 is inspiring.
“I am really happy to know how the residents have benefitted from this digital drive. I am sure the senior citizens are the most satisfied lot. There’s a renewed push in the Congress to use technology and social media to reach the masses. The story of Ward No 58 will become a model to others,” Vishnunath told this correspondent.
Incidentally, the AICC General Secretary and Karnataka in-charge KC Venugopal had in October last year pulled up many party leaders for not using social media to their advantage as is being done by their BJP counterparts.
Karnataka Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy says that the use of technology is the way forward to address the needs of the people.
“I am aware of the work being done by Shilpa and Abhilash. I am keen to know how they are able to get results at a faster pace by forming WhatsApp groups for localities. Even we have digital groups in my constituency, but it is inspiring to see a first-time corporator making such an impact. I am impressed,” says Ramalinga, who is a six-time legislator.
The couple oversee the work done in Ward No 58.
Of the seven corporators in the constituency, three are from BJP, two from INC and two are Independents. Supporters of Shilpa Reddy say that the sitting three-time BJP MLA from CV Raman Nagar constituency S Raghu is showing a ‘stepmotherly treatment’ towards the needs of Ward No 58. They accuse the MLA of not releasing funds for the Ward for the last two years.
But, Raghu, a seasoned politician, smiles at all these allegations and says that his work speaks for itself.
“Anyone serving people and doing good work will have to be appreciated. I am aware of the WhatsApp groups that are active, and we too have similar initiatives. See the number of parks I have developed. We have a new drinking water plant. A government school has been sanctioned. Welfare measures have been implemented without a break and that’s why I have the people’s mandate,” says Raghu, who is among the early birds to have begun working towards the 2018 polls.
He maintains that he treats all corporators equally, and allegations and counter-allegations are only part of the game.
“I am happy that the people are benefiting from the use of technology and social media campaigns. At the end of the day, it is the people who will call the shots, and not politicians,” adds Raghu.
Social media ushers revolution
Senior journalist and political observer Dr M Gautham Machaiah says social media has brought power to the fingertips of the people – especially the youth, who swear by technology, and senior citizens, who, with ample time on their hands, can raise the red flag even from the confines of their homes through their mobile phones.
“Ultimately, in India, elections are fought and won largely on caste, money and other considerations, but candidates who deploy social media to address civic issues will have an edge over others in the days to come. The story of Ward No 58, New Thippasandara, is truly different and inspiring,” Dr Machaiah told this correspondent.
So, what can the residents of Ward No 58 expect from the Shilpa-Abhilash team in the future?
“We are constantly thinking of ways to make life easier for the people. We will continue to reach more people in the days to come, rather than them chasing us. Politicians need to change with the changing times,” says Shilpa.