Why the BJP needs to reach out to rural voters
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There is a sense of disenchantment with India’s ruling dispensation in the countryside. That seemed to be one of the key messages from the Gujarat assembly election verdict last month. And that seems to be one of the key messages from the Mood of the Nation Survey 2018 conducted earlier this month by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in collaboration with ABP News.
The last such survey was conducted in May 2017, and since then, anti-incumbency seems to have grown. The disenchantment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government seems to be highest among farmers, the latest survey of 14,336 voters spread across 19 states shows. More worryingly for the NDA regime, a significantly higher proportion of respondents among both farmers and non-farmers seem to think that the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress party had a better record in handling farm woes.
A failure in addressing concerns of the rural electorate could have serious repercussions for the BJP, as the hinterland still determines the electoral verdict in the national elections for the Lok Sabha. There are 342 rural, 144 semi-urban and 57 urban constituencies in the country, a categorization based on census 2011 data shows. Though the BJP’s lead over the Congress was widest in urban constituencies (21.3%), the bedrock of its 2014 Lok Sabha victory was a massive upsurge across rural India. The party won 178 rural constituencies in 2014 as compared to only 66 in 2009.
While the BJP gained support among all income classes in rural India, it made the biggest gains among middle and rich/upper-middle class voters, an analysis of post-poll survey data shows. It is this category of voters whose desertion had cost the party dear in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Subsequently, the Congress-led UPA regime was able to gain the support of this group in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, perhaps partly because of the higher farm prices and farm loan waiver it had announced in its first term. But in 2014, these voters swung back to the BJP in significant numbers.
A caste-wise analysis shows that the BJP gained most votes among upper castes and middle/peasant caste groups (such as Marathas, Jats, and Patidars) in 2014. Their disenchantment with the regime has already manifested itself in the form of a number of agrarian and caste-based agitations.
The BJP also managed to win more votes than the Congress party among the rural poor for the first time in 2014. These voters have traditionally been voting in larger numbers for the Congress party. But that changed in the last Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP thus has plenty to lose from the rural discontent, and hence plenty to worry about. Managing the rural slowdown won’t be easy though. The policies that are being talked about —higher farm prices and farm loan waivers —are unlikely to benefit all sections of the countryside and may end up raising inflation. Discontent about rising prices played a big role in the electoral loss of the previous government, and the NDA regime will have to be more careful. Already, anxieties about price rise are on the rise in the country, the latest Lokniti-CSDS survey shows. If inflation picks up further, this may work strongly against the government.
It will be interesting to see what choices Arun Jaitley makes in the last full budget of the NDA government before it faces the electorate in 2019. Will Jaitley shun populism altogether? And if so, what will he do to assuage the sentiments of rural voters?
Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS.