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The city’s moment?

Post-delimitation,the urban voters’ new power

Written by Saritha Rai |
April 7, 2009 12:30:09 pm

For the first time in history,the urban Indian voter has become a significant,relevant factor in Indian politics,and this may be a defining moment.

With the delimitation of parliamentary constituencies based on population numbers,urban voters will elect nearly a quarter of the 543 representatives of the people. The hypothesis,as yet untested,is that developmental issues rather than caste and communal issues will be the focus of the urban election campaign.

A demography-based political shift is already under way in India’s mega cities. In Bangalore,for instance,assembly constituencies have risen from 16 to 28 and parliamentary constituencies from two to four. Of course,as with everything else connected with India’s elections,there are many imponderables. For instance,the quality of voter rolls in urban areas will make a big difference. A study — in fact the only such study — by Bangalore-based Janaagraha,a not-for-profit working in the areas of citizenship and democracy,revealed 60 per cent-plus error rates in the voter rolls of the one urban Bangalore assembly constituency that was researched. In rural areas,electoral roll error rates are estimated to be around 10 per cent. Janaagraha’s founder,the urban affairs expert Ramesh Ramanathan explains it like this: rural voter rolls are static but urban voter rolls have two types of glaring errors. Errors of commission,or names to be deleted (people move neighbourhoods,cities,etc) and errors of omission,which are names to be added.” Voter rolls in urban areas are very dynamic,and there is a big market for these incorrect names — as every political party knows,” according to Ramanathan. A lot happens in that last hour of voting in urban polling booths,he adds. The reason voter roll errors make a difference is that the margin of victory is very narrow and voter turnout is abysmally low (45 per cent or thereabouts) in Indian cities.

The poor urban turnout has been described as voter apathy but the fact also is that the political parties until now offered little to city voters. The other unknown is whether India’s first-time voters and youth will turn out at the polling booths. For the first time,there are unprecedented campaigns to turn up the youth vote. Janaagraha’s joint venture with Tata Tea,the website jaagore.com,has so far registered a million hits and helped 500,000 young people get on to voters’ lists. The Bangalore band ‘Thermal and a Quarter’ exhorts people to “Shut Up and Vote” in its song by that name. Of course,an attitudinal shift among political parties so far focused heavily on rural India may be slow in the coming. In last year’s assembly elections in Karnataka,when the delimitation first came into effect,‘Bangalore’ showed up in every political party’s poll manifesto. Roads,electricity,water supply,the airport,labour laws,infrastructure all figured prominently alongside the traditional roti,kapda and makaan promises.

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Where does the urban voter factor leave politicians like H.D. Deve Gowda of Karnataka and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal who have so far made a virtue of wooing the rural voter? Deve Gowda calls himself the ‘son of the soil’,and has time and again ridiculed Bangalore’s middle class. Banerjee has not exactly endeared herself to West Bengal’s urban populace and has recently said she is not to blame for the Tata Nano project shifting out of West Bengal. “Banerjee and Gowda may end up further sharpening their rural identity because,after all,rural voters are still a majority,” says Ramanathan. But as the massive migration to urban India continues,“they are walking on a dead-end street,” he says.

In Bangalore,a highly educated city full of migrant workers,political parties have still not grasped the recent changes,according to Rajeev Gowda,a professor at IIM-Bangalore and an aspirant for the Congress nomination for Bangalore South. As Gowda campaigns for his ticket with Congress party bosses,he says,“I’m scoffed at when I say that an educated candidate like me can push up voter turnout from 45 to 60 per cent and win the seat.”

The general elections’ turning point could gradually be evident in that political rallies will start getting less relevant and modern technology (H.D. Kumaraswamy’s SMS campaign or L.K. Advani’s blogs) come into play. Forward-looking,pragmatic candidates like Sheila Dikshit of Delhi will have more appeal to the urban voter. Money power may be less of a factor. Or is that just wishful thinking on the part of this urban voter?

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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