Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Which way will the new urban Indian voter tilt?

Unlike in the US and Europe, the urban Indian voter, for now, is siding with the centre-right political party

The state elections later this year will set the discourse for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. A lot of attention will be paid, expectedly, to caste and religion as predictors of political preference. Another divide that is slowly making it to the surface of Indian politics is the rural-urban one. The census of 2011 puts India’s urbanization level at 31.2%—up from 27.8% in 2001. More importantly, the 2011 census revealed that it was the first time that the absolute increase in urban population (91 million) was more than its rural counterpart (90.5 million).

The census, however, generally undercounts India’s urbanization. This is because of a peculiar definition: A settlement in India qualifies to be called urban if its population is greater than 5,000, its population density is more than 400 persons per sq. km and at least 75% of its male workforce is employed in non-farming occupations. With a less restrictive definition, many studies conclude (goo.gl/Ahr7xu), India would be much more urban than the official figures suggest.

It is clear that urban India’s salience is increasing owing to sheer numbers. Of late, one can also notice a distinctive trend in the political behaviour of urban voters. In a recent analysis of voting trends in 13 states (where regional parties are strong), Ashish Ranjan finds (goo.gl/mzwLXu) that regional parties remain strong in their rural bases but have lost considerable space to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in urban areas. The BJP’s rise was the sharpest between the 2009 and 2014 general elections.

In state elections too, the BJP has outperformed its rivals in urban constituencies. The Gujarat election in December 2017 was a particularly stark example where the BJP won 48 urban seats as compared to Congress’ 10. In rural areas, the Congress won 67 seats and the BJP just 51. There have been other surveys (goo.gl/8u52wg) which have found that as incomes and education levels increase, the support for the BJP goes up. This observation is in sharp contrast to the US and Europe, where centre-right parties draw their support primarily from rural areas and low-income group voters.

The rural-urban polarization is particularly acute in the US: The multicultural urban areas vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats and rural America throws almost its entire weight behind the Republicans. The political preference of the Indian urban voter is very different. In India, an increase in education and incomes—correlated with higher urbanization—leads to less engagement with the state. As a citizen grows richer, there is a higher chance that she commutes in private cars and sends her daughter to a private school. However, in the US, for instance, the densely populated regions, which vote for the Democrats, travel by public transport.

In her study of CSDS-Lokniti’s National Election Study (2014) survey data, Reetika Syal finds (goo.gl/QKfqxN) that urban respondents were least politically engaged compared to their rural and semi-urban counterparts. In the US, the rural voter feels let down by the state. With income inequality on the rise, the rural voter thinks the state has colluded with the corporate elite and liberals in American metros to her disadvantage. The Democrats who argue for a greater state role are, therefore, red flags to her.

Democrats too have not helped themselves by choosing to neglect the issues of rural voters. Whereas the rural voters are more concerned with agricultural issues and the negative fallouts of free trade, the Democrats focus more on immigration and minority rights. Donald Trump won the presidency by making a compelling case on how the liberal elites in Washington had double-crossed rural America. His rival Hillary Clinton scored a massive self-goal by calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables".

The attitude of centre-left parties is no different in Europe. Like the Democrats in the US, the leaders of centre-left parties in Europe deem rural voters to be too conservative and backward for their tastes. Jaroslaw Fils, a sociologist, told The New York Times (goo.gl/aKhGs9): “Residents of rural areas are perhaps the only social groups that we can still openly ridicule. It’s not politically correct to laugh at gay people, ethnic minorities, obese people. But hardly anyone will tell you off for laughing at peasants."

To start with, the centre-left parties in Europe could not adapt to the transition of the workforce from manufacturing to services. In an attempt at ideological moderation, politicians like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder moved too far from their parties’ original moorings. Ultimately, these parties have come to rely upon urban, middle-class support as populist, right-wing and anti-immigration parties are now sweeping the rural heartland.

The divide between urban and rural voters in India is not as sharp as in the US and Europe. But as India rapidly urbanizes, even small differences will begin to matter. The BJP seems to hold an advantage for now. Will it be able to hold on to it? Even if it does, the rural voter continues to be a top political prize in this country. Clinton later apologized for her “basket of deplorables" comment but she would have never uttered this in the first place if she was half a serious politician in India.

Will the urban voter be increasingly wooed by political parties in India? Tell us at view@livemint.com

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