New Delhi: The stereotypical middle-class urban voter is part cynic, part dreamer. She or He despises politicians and caste-based politics, and wishes Mumbai could be a Shanghai.
Now, some newly formed political groups are hoping to appeal to this city stereotype by portraying themselves as a sort of political detergent needed to cleanse India of corruption and bureaucratic red tape that is at the top of most middle class grouse lists, and promote meritocracy.
New role: Management guru and author Shiv Khera is president of the Bharatiya Rashtravadi Samanata Party. He had fought and lost the election to Parliament in 2004 as an independent candidate. Raj K Raj / HT
With names such as Professionals Party of India and Jago (Wake Up) Party, they may not be serious contenders for political power, at least as yet, but their emergence before a string of state polls and next year’s general election suggests that middle-class concerns and aspirations will have a vent.
India has more than 900 registered political parties that cut across the ideological spectrum from the left to right. These urban-centric parties, however, refuse to identify themselves in the ideological spectrum; they would rather call themselves nationalist.
Take the Bharatiya Rashtravadi Samanata Party, or BRSP, whose name translates as Indian Nationalist Equality Party. The party’s president is motivational speaker, management guru and author Shiv Khera, who has written books such as You Can Win.
“All labels are misnomers. You could probably call us nationalist,” says Khera, who fought and lost the election to parliament from the South Delhi constituency in 2004 as an independent candidate.
His party plans to contest state assembly elections in Delhi and Rajasthan this year.
State elections will also be held in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram as well as Jammu and Kashmir before the year’s end, leading up to parliamentary elections that are due to take place by May.
Estimates of India’s middle class vary. Households with disposable incomes between Rs2 lakh and Rs10 lakh a year comprise about 50 million people, roughly 5% of the population, consultant McKinsey and Co. said in a report last year.
By 2025 a continuing rise in personal incomes will enlarge the middle class to about 583 million people, or 41% of the population, it said. “The growth that has pulled millions of people out of poverty is also building a huge middle class that will be concentrated in India’s urban areas,” McKinsey said.
Getting middle-class voters to the polling booths is one of the prime concerns of the urban-centric parties.
“It is widely believed that a large segment of the middle class does not, or is not, able to vote,” says R.V. Krishnan, Pune-based entrepreneur and founder of Professionals Party of India (PPI), whose members include engineers and finance and software professionals. “This is due to a variety of causes, including (the perception that) ‘no one is worth voting for’.”
“If the middle class can be persuaded to vote, and you give them candidates worth voting for, there are enough numbers in the middle class to get a majority in Parliament. PPI has done the math,” Krishnan said.
Both Jago Party and the BRSP are in search of “good” and “clean” candidates to field in the elections, said Jago secretary Denson Joseph.
And to get the voters to the polling booths, Jago promises Rs600 per month as a financial incentive to all those who cast their ballots. PPI’s manifesto promises a more powerful attraction—the abolishment of personal income tax.
“We are targeting youngsters and educated people... They are the ones who understand our ideology immediately,” said Jago Party president Deepak Mittal. “We are nationalist and very modern, we are against moral policing, people can do whatever they want including gambling.” But his partyalso calls for strict law enforcement and advocates capital punishment.
Lok Satta, or People’s Power, is a party formed in 2006 by Jayaprakash Narayan, a physician by training who went into the Indian Administrative Service, in which he spent 16 years.
His party’s website says it wants to establish a “new political culture which will place the citizen at the centre ofgovernance”.
It promises to eliminate “all forms of discrimination by birth” and ensure “equal opportunities for vertical mobility to all sections of society, irrespective of caste, ethnicity, religion or gender”.
Opposition to caste-based politics that promotes government job quotas and seat reservations in educational institutions is a factor that unites the urban-centric political parties. For some who claim to have lost out because of reservations, it can be a significant appeal.
“I am attracted to Jago Party because they have an anti-reservation stance,” says Aditya Bhardwaj, a student of a correspondence course and an active member of the party. “I scored 77% (in school) but have not been able to gain admission into any regular college because of reservations.”
Whatever the appeal, some analysts say it will be difficult for these parties to make a political impact.
“The middle class is extremely difficult to penetrate since it is very much aware. To them, branding and brand equity are important. They will not waste their votes by voting for parties that do not have a chance of winning,” says Delhi-based political analyst and Mint columnist G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.
“Lok Satta, for example, has been around for about two years now. Jago Party is talking a lot of sense but there are no takers,” he said, noting that Telugu movie star Chiranjeevi’s party, Praja Rajyam, had taken off in a big way without spelling out a detailed agenda. “Getting middle-class votes on agenda is building castles in the air.”
Still, even mainstream political parties, traditionally focused on rural India that is home to two-thirds of the country’s population, have begun to court the urban voter.
Mint had reported in June that the process of delimiting parliamentary seats—which means redrawing constituencies on the basis of population—has increased the importance of urban areas by increasing their share of seats.
A senior member of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, said on condition of anonymity that the party’s success in the Karnataka assembly elections in May was possible because of its focus on urbanareas.
“We designed a campaign specific to cities and had a vision document for each city,” he said. “We anyway have a strong worker base in urban areas. All this helped us in winning theelections.”
The lead urban specialist of the World Bank in India, Richard Clifford, says city-specific issues are receiving better attention from the government.
“Attitudes are changing because urban areas are critical for the government’s growth targets. Nearly 65% of India’s gross domestic product comes from urban areas,” he says.
“Focus on urban areas will enable governments to reap the benefits of the agglomeration economy. Urban poverty, too, is drawing attention as it creates issues related to skills development,” Clifford added.
With increased investment in urban amenities by the government, the size of this electorate—the urban middle class—is only expected to grow.
“The per capita plan investment in the urban sector is only 0.6% to 0.7%,” Union urban development secretary M. Ramachandran says. “There should be more investment, especially in drinking water, solid waste management and sewerage facilities. About Rs8 trillion is required to provide these facilities in 5,161 cities and towns across the country.”
Chennai-based political analyst Krishna Ananth says the phenomenon of fledgeling city-based political parties appealing for votes from a high moral ground amounts to “teflon patriotism”.
He links the trend to the higher profile acquired by the middle class in recent years as the pursuit of economic reforms launched in 1991 boosted urban incomes.
“Liberalization has created some space for them and today there is definitely a visible middle-class culture,” Ananth adds.