R Srinivasan

The rise of the cityzen

Updated on: May 14, 2014
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The young urban voter has changed the agenda of future elections, from quotas and freebies to corruption-free governance

To my mind, the most significant political achievements in the just-concluded elections were, first and foremost, Narendra Modi’s success in breaking through traditional barriers of geography and language, and managing to get his message to resonate with voters — even if in pockets in some cases — across the country. This is a signal feat.

The BJP calls itself a national party, and is classified by the Election Commission as one, but it really didn’t count for much in large parts of the country, whether Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, or West Bengal and the entire north-east. Not this time.

It may still not end up winning too many seats in these places, but in terms of vote share, it will no longer be a non-entity.

The second significant development is the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. Again, this is not about the number of seats it may actually end up winning.

Whether it was Gul Panag in Chandigarh or Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi or even the soft-spoken Yogendra Yadav in Gurgaon, the fledgling party has managed to energise the elections, change the direction of debate, and draw in active support — on the ground, and not just ideological or financial support — from quarters which had hitherto been either disinterested, or had actively disliked the political process.

It is not important how many of the 422 seats in which the AAP put up candidates eventually go its way — the important number to see will be how many of their candidates do not lose their deposits.

There is a common thread which connects the two seemingly disparate developments.

That common thread is the rise of the urban voter. Now that might seem surprising, given that as per the antiquated constituency delimitation norms — norms which have been actually frozen till after the census of 2026, by the entire political class working together to preserve their traditional vote-banks by amending the Constitution itself — there are just 40 so-called urban constituencies in India.

Another 65 are classified as ‘semi urban’, while the bulk are rural (244) or semi rural (190).

Reaching a consensus

The trouble is, voters, especially the 100 million first-time voters who entered the rolls this election, are no longer prepared to quietly acquiesce with the kind of classifications which fell within the comfort zones of the traditional political parties and their poll managers.

In fact, the Census of India, whose earlier findings were used (or misused) to define constituencies in a particular way, has itself recognised this, and started redefining what is actually an urban area.

Using three criteria — population (5,000-plus), density (minimum 400/square km) and economic activity (at least 75 per cent of male workforce in non-farm sector), it classified many more habitations as towns than are officially listed as such by the State.

The result was a startling rise in urbanisation. Census 2011 identifies 7,935 towns in India.

The number of so-called ‘census towns’ grew from 1,362 in the 2001 census to 3,894 in the 2011 census.

Many of these towns are part of urban agglomerations (the census lists 475 such) and the rest are so called ‘outgrowths’ which fall in the periphery, but are in the process of being assimilated into such agglomerations.

The total number of urban agglomerations/towns, which can together be called urban (and are, by the census) is 6,166, accounting for over 31 per cent — nearly a third — of the entire population.

But do they get one-third share of seats in the Lok Sabha? Do they get a one-third share of budgets?

Do they even get a one-third share of governance?

We all know the answer. Or better still, ask Mumbaikars. They know what it is like to work hard in a ruthlessly competitive environment, pay the most taxes and yet be ruled by politicians who are more bothered about sugarcane prices or co-operative bank elections than the terminal decay of India’s once greatest city.

Surging urbanisation

This is the new faultline which both Modi (though not, one must say, the rest of his party) and AAP have spotted and exploited.

Modi’s message resonated in places where the BJP’s traditional party line used to fail, because he spoke of the aspirations and the needs of this new urban underclass — jobs, infrastructure, a better life. Ditto for AAP — it picked up the general dissatisfaction of these urbanites forced to live under a rural administration infrastructure.

It spoke of corruption, which is sucking away what is due to them; it spoke of prices, lack of power, lack of water — in fact, the lack of the basic services which make up the so-called quality of life index, the attractions of which had led to India’s surging urbanisation in the first place.

These are also the things which concern the 100 million the most. They not only want jobs and better infrastructure and civic services — they want in on the action, they want to vote, they want control over who will represent them and why.

Setting the agenda

They are no longer willing to be passive pawns in games politicians play, redrawing constituencies to draw imagined advantages from caste or community groupings.

“History will remember 2014 Elections as historic and marking a paradigm shift from conventional electioneering,” Modi wrote in his blog after polling ended.

“Normally,” he continued, “the party in power sets the agenda of the campaign but for the first time it was not the case. Far from setting the agenda, the ruling party was neither proactive nor responsive. It was only reactive throughout the campaign.” He may be right about the Congress, but not about who was setting the agenda.

It was not, as he implies, the BJP, but this new urban voter (my fellow columnist Narendar Pani calls them ‘cityzens’) who has forced the change of topic from reservations and freebies and caste and community and the price of onions to jobs and development and corruption-free governance.

It is still too early whether a single election would be enough to bring about the changes these ‘cityzen’ voters so clearly want to see. But they have changed the agenda of future elections.

Published on March 12, 2018

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