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Business News/ Opinion / New politics for a new generation
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New politics for a new generation

Politicians will soon have to adapt their ideas and strategies to a new India

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India is bang in the middle of two momentous transitions that have the potential to upset the traditional political calculus in the country, even as the shadow games begin in the months before the next general election due in 2014.

Both these transitions have been captured in recent official data. The government released the results of the latest employment survey last week. It showed that less than half of the approximately 500 million working Indians are now engaged in agriculture as their “usual status"—and this in a country where nearly 70% of the population still lives in villages.

In other words, India has more villagers than farmers in its workforce. What this means is that more than a quarter of Indian villagers in the workforce now get most of their income outside of agriculture, which fits well with the results of several micro studies on the economic diversification of rural India. It is also worth remembering that many families that still primarily live off the land—who identify themselves as farmers—have also invested in tiny enterprises in their villages, so the old assumption that equated rural India almost completely with agriculture will soon have to be buried.

The other big change is rapid urbanization. The new census for 2011 shows that urban India added more people than rural India did over the previous 10 years. The granular details are even more interesting. Rural population is stagnating in most of the dynamic states of peninsular India, as well as some northern states such as Punjab, with a large majority of the population growth in these states coming from cities. Population growth in the large states of the Gangetic belt such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar continue to be driven by rural expansion.

Putting these two trends together, we have a situation where urban India is adding more people than rural India while those who continue to live in villages are moving towards non-farm livelihoods. The confluence of these two important trends has the potential to radically alter Indian politics in the decade ahead.

Indian political discourse has traditionally been built on the twin Gandhian pieties about an unchanging rural India as well as the benefits of small agriculture. Much of the policy skew in the decades after independence has also been fashioned by this view. The rapid economic transformation of the past few decades has been gradually undermining all this, and the new data released in recent months suggests that India could now have hit an inflection point that will see the transitions accelerate.

It is now to be seen how various political entrepreneurs alter their narratives to appeal to a new generation of voters that will emerge from these economic transitions. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi seems to have taken a first stab at formulating a new political narrative, when he spoke about the neo-middle class. Other chief ministers such as Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra seem to understand the needs of a new India as well.

To be sure, the transition to a new political narrative does not come without risks. The relative decline in the importance of rural India in general, and farmers in particular, need not necessarily be matched by a decline in their political power. In fact, this can lead to intense bargaining for fiscal resources between groups that are still powerful and emerging groups that seek to increase their power. The political power of farmers in developed economies such as the US, Japan and Europe is a useful example: they continue to wield significant political power despite their modest numbers.

Another risk is now evident in Brazil, where cities have been rocked by demonstrations against the government. The sort of political disturbances rocking that country right now are possible only in an urban society dominated by people who have moved up the income ladder, but who yet live precarious economic lives that can be unsettled by anything from higher bus fares to reduced fuel subsidies.

Yet, despite these risks, there is no doubt that a new generation of political leaders will have to adapt their electoral strategies and policy directions to the new India that no longer fits the old assumptions about the nature of the Indian voter.

Are citizens in urban areas getting crushed under the political burden of rural India? Tell us at

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Updated: 24 Jun 2013, 07:19 PM IST
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