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Counting on cities

Why a new player like Kejriwal can,but a PM aspirant like Modi shouldn’t.

Written by Tariq Thachil |
Updated: January 9, 2014 9:56:25 pm

Why a new player like Kejriwal can,but a PM aspirant like Modi shouldn’t

In this past year,we have witnessed the mercurial rise of two figures aiming to capture power in New Delhi,Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. For Modi,2013 was the year he transitioned from being one of many electorally successful BJP chief ministers to the pre-eminent face of the party. It is easy to forget that this transition was not a foregone conclusion. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election,the BJP’s unexpected defeat,especially the limiting of its coalitional options,had been seen as partly due to the political fallout of the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat. Internally,Modi’s growing cult of personality also worried the RSS,which did not want any individual politician’s clout superseding that of the sanghathan. The year 2013 actually began with reports of tensions between Modi and key figures both within the BJP (notably L.K. Advani),and the larger NDA (notably Nitish Kumar). The year was not the culmination of a smooth,inevitable ascent to power. It was the year in which Modi leveraged his dominance in Gujarat,and his popularity among rank-and-file party workers,to overcome the considerable opposition to his becoming a prime ministerial candidate.

Kejriwal’s rise in 2013 is of less national significance,but was even more unexpected. His decision to enter the “dirty” river of electoral politics was largely ridiculed. One year later,Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party placed second in the Delhi assembly elections,a result capped by his own victory over a three-time chief minister. This victory was especially impressive given the high barriers to entry for new parties in India,particularly those that are not started by disgruntled leaders of existing parties. Our first-past-the-post electoral system gives no prizes for second place. A new party has to beat established opponents outright for every single seat it is accorded. By contrast,in proportional representation systems,like in Spain and South Africa,seats are allocated according to the percentage of votes a party wins,affording even small parties some representation. The rising costs of contesting Indian elections make them even more inhospitable for new parties competing against established rivals with developed fundraising infrastructure,resources and favours accrued from past stints in office.

Modi’s ascent and Kejriwal’s arrival are thus markedly different phenomena that overcame distinct obstacles. Yet,their concurrence does highlight interesting new possibilities within our electoral landscape. Most notably,they have signalled the potential of distinctly urban brands of Indian politics. Champions of Modi’s ability to lead the BJP nationally often cite his appeal among India’s growing urban middle classes. Indeed,Modi’s victory in 2012 disproportionately depended on his popularity among urban Gujaratis. According to Lokniti’s post-poll survey from the 2012 Gujarat elections,the BJP actually trailed the Congress among rural voters (46 per cent to 43 per cent). Modi’s victory was largely due to his party’s overwhelming advantage among urban voters,where it bested the Congress by a massive margin (58 per cent to 28 per cent). Among urban Gujaratis,the BJP did especially well among voters from wealthier and more educated households.

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This breakdown is not very surprising,as the BJP has always done well among relatively privileged urban voters. The real story from Gujarat is how the poll results might shift due to the changing electoral geography. Urban middle class constituencies have never been numerous enough to form the base of a winning coalition. The BJP’s Gujarat victory is startling in that it suggests a party was able to comfortably win a major Indian state election without winning the rural vote. As India’s electorate urbanises and grows wealthier on average,could we see urban voters deliver electoral victories in other states? Could the BJP’s core base expand into a bulwark for a national mandate?

Perhaps,but only in the long term. For 2014,the answer is a definite no. India is certainly urbanising,but at a comparatively gradual rate. In 1951,17 per cent of India’s population lived in cities,and by 2011 it was 31 per cent. Over the same time span,China’s urbanisation rate increased from 13 per cent to over 50 per cent. Within India,Gujarat has a demography that is especially well tailored to Modi’s urban appeal. According to the 2011 census,roughly 40 per cent of Gujarat’s population lives in urban areas — fourth among major Indian states. Yet,two of the other four most urbanised states are Kerala and Tamil Nadu,where the BJP is unlikely to record major seat totals in 2014. By contrast,the north Indian states where the party must make inroads are all far less urbanised. In Bihar — a state where Modi is particularly keen to improve his party’s showing after his elevation cost it a key ally — the urbanisation rate is only 11 per cent. Uttar Pradesh’s urban population comprises only 22 per cent,also well below the national average. In 2014,Modi and the BJP cannot rely on urban voters to the extent they have in Gujarat.

While Modi’s rise has focused attention on the electoral potential of the urban middle classes,the AAP’s spectacular performance in Delhi has highlighted the potential of urban constituencies as venues for new parties to debut innovative electoral tactics. First,the AAP illustrated how political outsiders can harness anti-incumbent sentiment in a way that is personalised for specific constituencies. For disillusioned middle class voters in New Delhi and Greater Kailash,the AAP promised to reduce the political corruption stifling private-sector growth. Among poorer communities in Shakurbasti and Trilokpuri,the AAP vowed to fight bureaucratic corruption restricting public service delivery. This malleability of corruption enabled the AAP to simultaneously appeal to voters from various class backgrounds. Second,to develop this decentralised message and make key decisions,the party relied heavily on voter surveys. Third,to deliver this message,it made extensive use of social media technology among its middle class supporters,while relying on a large volunteer cadre to bring its message to poorer voters via face-to-face campaigns.

The AAP model is particularly effective in urban areas for numerous reasons. Cities have a relative abundance of citizens who are financially comfortable enough to serve as volunteers. The geographically concentrated nature of urban constituencies also allows these middle class volunteers to canvass in poor neighbourhoods without being displaced from their own homes. The AAP’s dependence on survey research is also far less costly within an urban environment. Generating plausible random samples in a city-state,in which the average distance between voters is extremely low,is far less expensive than it would be for a large rural state like Bihar. Further,India’s electoral rules reward urban parties with spatially concentrated pools of support. Such concentration makes votes for these parties more likely to translate into seats. Imagine if the AAP won the support of 6 per cent of Indian voters (the percentage won by the BSP in 2009),but those roughly 26 million voters were spread exactly equally across 543 parliamentary constituencies. In such a scenario,the party would likely end up with no seats,as 6 per cent falls short of a winning share in any one constituency. But if the same 26 million votes are highly geographically concentrated within 60 urban constituencies,they are far more likely to yield a “fairer” share of seats.

Thus,for a new party like the AAP looking to establish a foothold in India’s political system,cities offer tantalising possibilities. However,for a major party like the BJP looking to dominate a national election,an urban focus remains inadequate. It would be massively premature to argue that the locus of Indian politics has shifted away from its villages. Yet 2013 was certainly a year in which the urban voter began to demand our political attention.

The writer is assistant professor of political science and South Asian studies at Yale University

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