Cities are widely expected to play a more prominent role in the coming Lok Sabha elections than before. City constituencies have been given a voice by the mobilisation of the urban middle class and its anti-corruption discourse.

In the midst of this new energy it is tempting to view the urban voter as a unanimous voice for change. But this view ignores the deep conflicts that exist within India’s cities; as a result, the real urban challenges may do not get attention they deserve in the agenda of political parties.

The rise of a voluble middle class does not mean the old politics of the city simply fades away. This politics is deeply rooted in the process of urbanisation.

Urban-rural ties A section of the rural population migrates into cities leaving a rural economy that can no longer sustain them. As they enter a system that is alien to them, they need a variety of instruments just to survive, ranging from ration cards to a place to stay. Local urban politicians are willing to provide them this support in return for their votes. And these votes gain even greater significance when the urban middle class is apathetic to elections.

At the same time the expansion of the cities results in the absorption of a large number of villages. As the lands of farmers in these villages are taken up for urban uses they are left without their major occupation.

Given their lower levels of education and urban social skills they cannot move easily into urban jobs. While a section of them can make do with rural activities that can survive in urban spaces, such as dairying, most of them have to look for other options. And politics provides them an opportunity.

As the former farmers move into urban politics their main advantage is the knowledge of local land ownership. With urbanisation causing the price of land to rise sharply this is a knowledge that can be utilised for quick profits.

It is then no surprise that in last year’s assembly elections in Karnataka a significant proportion of seats in Bangalore, particularly on the city’s periphery, were won by those with strong real estate connections.

And when substantial resources raised from real estate are invested in politics, there is an unstated expectation of economic returns from the political process.

The corruption that is built into this process has now generated righteous anger in the middle and upper classes. And the discourse has given them the confidence to enter the political space.

A decade ago Nandan Nilekani influenced the policymaking process in Bangalore. With the active support of the then Karnataka Chief Minister, SM Krishna, he headed the Bangalore Agenda Task Force. During that entire exercise, he took care to stay away from the political process. But today he has been all but officially declared the Congress candidate from Bangalore South.

In this urban middle class thrust into the political space the key issue that is being raised is that of corruption. This is no doubt something that strikes a chord with the urban voter. But it will be interesting to see how long this focus can be sustained. In moving into the political space the urban middle class will sooner rather than later come up against the entrenched politician.

In richer cities like Delhi where the majority are not dependent on the politician to survive there is the possibility that the entrenched politician can be defeated. But in other cities where the very survival of the poor requires political patronage, the results are less predictable.

Real issues forgotten The focus on corruption alone also carries another risk: it assumes that all the problems the city faces are the result of illegal political actions alone. This ignores a number of critical issues that require urgent attention in policymaking for our cities.

It would be normally expected in a democracy that at a time of economic slowdown that our cities would be concerned with the growth of urban employment.

This would in turn raise a number of issues, including the need to reduce costs of living so as to make the real wage rates more competitive in the global market.

The entry of the urban middle class into politics has not yet provided a prominent place in the run up to the Lok Sabha election for issues of meaningful urban policy.

The writer is Professor, School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore