Over the weekend, the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey once again reiterated the obvious: one of India’s most popular prime ministers, Narendra Modi, is deeply unpopular in South India. The levels of satisfaction with the Modi government in large parts of south India stretch deeply into negative territory (-39% in Tamil Nadu and Kerala).
No wonder then that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK’s) central campaign plank this time is: “Keep out Modi". And that seems to be enough. Denying Modi broader legitimacy is the popular sop of the season. N. Chandrababu Naidu has his own variant of that theme.
Irrespective of which party comes to power by the end of May, the southern frustration is not going to disappear any time soon.
It will remain a feature of India’s tenuous democracy at least for the next three to four decades, a period during which southern states are projected to further pull away from the rest of India on most economic and development indicators.
The other solidifying political cleavage is equally worthy of attention. Out of the 89 Lok Sabha seats that fall within urban agglomerations (regions with million-plus population), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 54 in 2014.
A slew of measures taken by the present government—keeping food inflation low, promoting digitization which simply doesn’t work in large parts of the country, and even demonetisation—make more sense when viewed through the prism of a cost-benefit analysis for the urban voter bloc.
A large-scale text analysis of Modi’s speeches reveal that there was, in fact, a distinct shift away from repeated mentions of "middle class" to the "poor" by the prime minister only in early 2017, one of the many unnoticed after-effects of demonetisation. While both these divides—north-south and urban-rural—have always existed, India’s development trajectory is only going to heighten their electoral importance steadily. They will inevitably join an eclectic list of the country’s many other cleavages—from religion and caste to language.
For India’s democracy to survive and remain credible, the national conversation must find ways to accommodate these new divides, which would involve serious attempts to bridge the clearly diverging interests of large groups of Indians.
Irrespective of which political party stakes claim to form a national government on 23 May, nearly a third of India would have voted for a party that has very little presence in Delhi. A Tamil- or Bengali-speaking prime minister would remain a remote possibility. The political and policy needs of the urban consumer and the rural producer would continue to be widely different. The festival of democracy would be nothing more than a brief interlude in this battle of contestations.
The fallout of ignoring these contestations, and holding on to the mere symbol of elections as a sign of a functioning democracy, is already visible in other celebrated democracies: the US and Britain. The urban-rural divide was a far better indicator of support for Trump and Brexit than race, age, or class. In both countries, political and policy debate has increasingly begun to centre on party loyalties.
And frustration at being left out by Washington D.C. and London, the respective administrative capitals, is among the most dominant factors when it comes to determining voting preferences. In India, many of these signs are already visible.
To realistically address the emerging rifts in India’s polity, the country needs a sensitive national government far more than a strong one.
In a sensitive democracy, elections are often only the beginning of a national conversation, not the end.
Whether the new government is up to that task or not, only time will tell.
Ajai Sreevatsan is a national writer at Mint.
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