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New boundaries for Indian politics add more urban taste and flavour

New boundaries for Indian politics add more urban taste and flavour
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First Published: Mon, Jun 09 2008. 11 25 PM IST

New Delhi: Last year, India redrew constituencies based on latest population data, giving cities more representation simply because more people lived in them. Now, lessons from Karnataka, the first state that went to the polls after the electoral map was redrawn based on the 2001 census, indicate that Indian parties, which have traditionally campaigned on rural issues, will have to include urban concerns as well to win elections.
The number of assembly seats in Karnataka’s capital Bangalore went up to 28 from 16 after the delimitation and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, won 17 of them (it had won six seats in the previous elections). The BJP went on to win in the state. Urban voters may well call the shots in elections to key states later this year and to the Lok Sabha elections in 2009.
The Delimitation Effect (Graphic)
Increasing urbanization, migration and the recent delimitation have made the urban voter more crucial. Of the nine states that Mint compared across the country, the number of assembly seats in urban areas have increased in five (in the case of Maharashtra, Mumbai’s suburbs have gained at the cost of India’s commercial capital itself). At least five of these nine will go to the polls soon.
New equation: Cauvery junction in Bangalore. Karnataka has already got a taste of the altered politics based on the changing rural-urban dynamics after the recent polls in the state. Increasing urbanization, migration and the recent delimitation have made the urban voter more crucial than ever before. (Hemant Mishra / Mint)
BJP’s Karnataka leaders agree that an increased number of seats in urban areas did help the party win the elections since it modified its campaign to suit the new dynamics. “We designed a campaign specific to cities and had a vision document for each city. We anyway have a strong worker base in urban areas. All this helped us in winning the elections,” says a senior state BJP leader, who asked not to be identified.
With the Delimitation Commission of India suggesting that the exercise be undertaken every decade, the urban voter will soon likely overtake rural voters in importance. India’s urban population is expected to account for 55% of the country’s total population in 2050, according to a 2007 United Nations report.
Increased migration is a significant factor leading to rising urban population and, consequently, the greater role of cities in electoral politics. A recent study by D.P. Singh, an associate professor at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences, found that between 1991 and 2001, migration contributed to 21% of the population growth of cities and towns.
Currently, an estimated 28% of the country’s people live in cities. After delimitation, the number of urban Lok Sabha seats will increase from around 70 to at least 100. This means that before delimitation, 28% of the country’s population translated into 13% representation in the Lok Sabha.
Political analyst G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, who writes a column for Mint, says most parties, including BJP, used issues such as inflation and fuel prices, which are largely considered urban issues, to woo voters in the recently held Karnataka elections.
“The urban vote has certainly become more important with delimitation and now has greater weight than earlier. Further, since urban constituencies are easier to represent compared to rural ones, they might be favoured by politicians,” adds Rao.
However, although they may need to focus more on urban issues, it is not possible for politicians to concentrate merely on urban seats since rural votes still count for the majority, Rao says.
Historian and sociologist Ramachandra Guha agrees, saying delimitation had merely meant a relative shift in seats with the countryside still retaining a majority.
Meanwhile, political parties admit this trend requires them to concentrate more on urban areas. “Now, the urban poor will have to be given more priority. Urban necessities like housing, drinking water and employment will dominate politics,” says Sudhakar Reddy, deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of India. “We will have to ensure that schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are not limited to the rural poor alone. Each party has units both in urban and rural areas, and can simultaneously concentrate on both.”
Says Congress party member of Parliament and science and technology minister Kapil Sibal: “Political parties have already started concentrating on urban issues. The Congress launched a massive scheme like the Jawahar Lal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission for cities... Now there is a reality check. With migration, the poor in urban areas are as significant as the rural poor.”
However, this shift in political balance towards urban India is giving rise to a situation where the pursuit of addressing the urban population often leads to a neglect of the rural.
Analysts are quick to dismiss this possibility. According to sociologist and author Dipankar Gupta, while one cannot ignore urban voters, rural voters can also not be taken lightly. “We must remember that the urban-rural link is an important factor. BJP won in Gujarat last year since it managed to bridge the gap between the town and the countryside. The town is not a distinct entity anymore,” he adds.
A survey conducted in Karnataka in November-December 2007 and April by Daksh, a citizen’s group found that the five most important issues for people do not vary significantly between urban and rural constituencies. These included jobs through employment schemes, access to electricity, better education, better roads, subsidized food distribution and eradication of corruption.
Just what the “urbanization” of politics means to parties isn’t clear.
While some experts are quick to declare it an advantage for BJP, an urban-centric party, others are more cautious. Rao says while the BJP might initially benefit in states where it is an important force, this will not be a perennial phenomenon. “Voting patterns of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections indicate that,” he says.
Guha says this trend might benefit national parties such as the Congress and BJP. “Regional parties usually do well by stoking regional sentiments in rural areas. However, with a relative shift in seats towards cities, they might lose out to national parties. The Karnataka election outcome was a result of this.”
Some say the ballooning migrant population in cities could actually make even urban politics that much more “regional”. “It is a myth that regional sentiments work only in rural areas. Mumbai is the best example of it. In fact, it is possible to follow anti-outsider politics in urban areas because of large-scale migration. Classically, the foundation of regional identities is an urban middle class phenomenon,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director of New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
While delimitation has in theory given the urban voter a greater say in Indian politics, the actual translation of this power depends on a number of factors. Urban voter turnout continues to remain a huge concern. Despite assembly seats increasing from 16 to 28, voter turnout in Bangalore remained low at just over 50% against about 78% in rural areas. Experts have cited urban apathy towards politics as a reason for this. Another factor to be considered is the extent of migrant population actually enrolled on the voters’ lists.
“From the studies we have done, I can say a few things. Turnout among urban voters is low compared with the rural voters, and interest in election campaign is lower among urban voters,” says Sanjay Kumar, fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
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First Published: Mon, Jun 09 2008. 11 25 PM IST