Well before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls have reached the half-way mark there has been a firm reaffirmation of the sharp differences between the urban and the rural voter. The levels of participation of rural voters in Karnataka’s polling have once again been far greater than that of their urban counterparts.
A predominantly rural constituency like Mandya recorded over 80 per cent polling, while Bengaluru South, the home to the globalised information technology industry, came in with a number that was around 27 percentage points lower. The reasons that have been cited for the urban voters’ lack of interest have ranged from the temptation of the polling holiday providing an extra long weekend to the choice of candidates. What has not been adequately recognised is the vastly different role of voting in urban and rural politics.
Rural politics functions substantially around groups. The fact that these groups are usually formed around caste and religion masks a more basic reason for their resilience. In a country that extends to a sixth of all humanity, the primary concerns of voters in different parts of the country can vary quite substantially. While voters may share some common concerns such as national security or the need for state monetary support, there would be a very large number of local issues influencing their everyday existence, including some as essential as the supply of drinking water.
In a generally insensitive political environment these voters need to form a group that would be relatively more visible. This may still not be enough to be heard, as is evident in the phenomenon of villages boycotting elections. But it would still be better than trying to get the elected representative to listen to their problems. The local group around a person who negotiates with the larger political parties was what the sociologist MN Srinivas called a vote bank.
This necessity does not disappear when rural voters migrate to urban areas in search of work. The nature of their uncertainties can, and do, change. A roof over their head, howsoever rudimentary, did exist in their village, but becomes a major challenge in the urban setting. Often deals have to be made with local intermediaries with varying degrees of legality, to find a place to stay. The local intermediaries can also deal with the police providing the poor migrant the much needed protection against the protectors. The intermediaries can then become vote banks themselves.
As voters move up the economic ladder, though, the need for permanent intermediaries diminishes. They can develop their own methods of influencing the system. They develop the networks that can directly influence the system. Some of them may develop the financial means to bribe their way through minor skirmishes with the administrative system. Others may develop networks that include members of the bureaucracy at various levels. These networks can be tapped in times of need.
They may join groups in support of a particular cause, but the commitment to the group need not be permanent. They can rally against a steel flyover one day, and against the lack of infrastructure the next. They develop the means of being heard, including through the media, that increases their influence to levels far greater than their numbers would otherwise warrant.
The methods of politics followed by middle class urban voters thus has much less need for the elected representative. It suits them to have a system of centralised power that they believe they can influence. Voting for them is necessary solely to elect an all-powerful leader who will let them work the system as and when they need to do so.
The former Karnataka chief minister, R Gundu Rao, referred to himself as a member of the Indira Gandhi’s drama troupe who acted under the direction of the then prime minister. The argument made by virtually every candidate of the BJP in Karnataka, that the election was a vote for Prime Minister Modi and not for them, belongs to the same genre.
Others in the middle class may be confident enough about their strength vis-a-vis the state machinery to believe it does not really matter who is in power. They may believe their ability to influence the system when needed would not be affected by a change of government. They may still want to vote to demonstrate their civic consciousness, as in celebrities who like being photographed when voting.
The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru