When S.M. Krishna lost the Karnataka state elections in 2004, most pundits suggested that this was due to his focus on the urban voter. The same explanation was offered for Chandrababu Naidu’s electoral defeat in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. These pronouncements reinforced the view that support of urban issues is a death wish for political leaders.
What a difference four years can make. As we turn into the home stretch of the 2008 Karnataka elections, urban development and urban politics have come out of the shadows to play a prime role in electoral fortunes.
Credit the Election Commission (EC) and its delimitation work. Karnataka is the first state to go to polls after the electoral map was redrawn based on the 2001 census, and the urban shift is massive. Bangalore has gone from 16 seats in the 2004 state assembly to 28 seats this time, a jump of 75% in political representation. This shift is only the beginning of an irreversible trend. Karnataka was 34% urban in 2001 and—going by national trends—will see decadal urban growth of at least 30% and urban share increase of 1.5% every year.
The implication? Demographics drive politics. Urban areas will act as relentless political magnets, drawing power from the rural areas, as people migrate from farm to factory and service-based livelihoods. Karnataka is just the first domino—we will see this in every election to follow, to a lesser or greater degree. Besides Mumbai to some extent in local issues, no other city or state has witnessed this because the political catalyst was missing—the EC delimitation has provided the spark.
This political climate change has huge implications not only for political parties, but also for the bureaucracy, corporate leaders, urban residents, academics, NGOs and the media. So far, urbanization and its challenges have not met with much rigorous political attention beyond the—almost indulgent—occasional discussions about bus systems or infrastructure bottlenecks. In fact, for the urban middle class, its engagement has so far had an antiseptic quality to it, devoid of the idiom of politics—the resident welfare association working with the city commissioner, preferring bureaucratic succour to political support.
No doubt urban political processes always existed, especially for the urban poor, a route more accessible to them than engagement with the bureaucracy. However, what will change is a convergence of contestations: The formal canvas of politics will become the space in which all urban conflicts will get resolved.
This change will pose challenges for the politician as well, who has so far not had to deal with the urban middle class as a political constituency, looking for services and delivery—better water supply and sanitation, improved public transport and power supply, more transparency and less corruption, and so on. It’s a new language that it needs to learn.
There will also be conflicts within the political system. The trend of state-level MLA seats going urban doesn’t bode well for city governments. So far, the battles of decentralization have been fought only in rural India, between panchayat representatives and MLAs. Greater state-level urban representation will witness similar clashes between MLAs and city corporators.
For the NGO and academic community, the emerging political city presents an ideological challenge. Being a noisy contestation of enterprise and equity, environmental activism and infrastructure development, middle class frustration and urban poverty entitlements, the urban canvas is a continuous flux of negotiations and compromises that resists convenient labelling or superficial explanation.
Urban stakeholders will need to figure out how to make these complex collective processes work. We need new tools for these negotiations, both among diverse groups outside government, and also between these groups and the emerging political leaders.
All this is ahead of us. Meanwhile, back in Karnataka as the clock ticks to the first phase of elections on 10 May, BJP advertisements openly woo the urban voter—traffic issues, lack of infrastructure, and so on. The Congress response says: “Nine years ago, Bangalore was competing to be a preferred investment destination with Chennai and Hyderabad. We won the battle because of our leadership.” It’s a telling sign of how the wheel has truly turned —an electoral liability from 2004 is suddenly a competitive advantage this year.
Clearly, the decibel level in the arena of urban politics is only just beginning to rise. How we deal with this change is yet unknown. One thing is for sure: This is one phenomenon that will not reverse.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org