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Indian politics shifting to towns

india Updated: May 13, 2008 03:16 IST
Varghese K. George
Varghese K. George
Hindustan Times
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The influence of India’s urban voters is expected to rise with state elections in Karnataka, churning the country’s politics and its political landscape as electioneering on issues such as housing loans or information technology becomes acceptable.

The Bangalore metropolitan area will elect 28 legislators, compared to 12 in 2004. The state legislature’s strength will remain at the previous 224, shifting clout from rural to city voters. This is the first election after the constituencies of India were redrawn according to the 2001 census, moving from constituencies based on the 1971 census.

“Parties cannot ignore the significance of the urban voter,” said Arun Jaitley, BJP general secretary in-charge of Karnataka.

Since the 1970s, the urban population has nearly doubled and the number of towns has gone up from 2,590 to 5,161. In 1971, there were 22 people in the cities for every 100 in the countryside; in 2001 there were 38, caused by large-scale migration from rural areas.

Delimitation of constituencies has taken into account this demographic shift. From old Mumbai, one Lok Sabha constituency shifted to the suburbs, populated by new migrants. In Thane, the number of constituencies doubled from two to four. In Pune, there are 11 more assembly seats. In Kolkata, 12 assembly seats and one parliament seat have been added. The story is similar elsewhere.

The shift to urban voters means issues of concern to the burgeoning middle class will matter to political parties. For instance, Bangalore, which grew the fastest after Delhi between 1991-2001, has a huge number of IT professionals. Simultaneously, slums and urban poverty too will have to be addressed. “Delimitation will restore the ‘one-vote, one value’ principle and enfranchise the urban poor,” says political analyst Yogendra Yadav.

India’s economic growth has created an affluent urban middle class, largely averse to politics, and an urban poor excluded from it. Issues such as the recent quota debate brought politics to middle class homes. Elections will test their political attitudes and give the urban poor a proportionate franchise. The migrant versus native debate will also get louder. Regional parties will want to thrive on the rift in Karnataka, H.D. Deve Gowda wants quota for natives in the IT industry and Raj Thackeray’s diatribe against “outsiders” in Mumbai is getting shriller.

But migrants are also a mighty political constituency. “Marathis. make up only 24 per cent of Mumbai’s population. The rest are migrants,” says Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam, who started a new campaign, ‘We the migrants’, on the Internet. Nirupam landed in Mumbai from Bihar 25 years ago and rose in politics. He says migrants are reluctant voters only one in three out of Mumbai’s 21 per cent Hindi speakers use the ballot. Nirupam is planning to take his campaign, urging urban migrants to vote, to 130 towns and cities of India.

In Ludhiana, seven of 70, and in Chandigarh, five of 25 corporators are Hindi speakers, says Manish Tiwari, Congress spokesperson. “This shows how well Indians from one region assimilate and go high in another.”

Though xenophobia is loud, parties with higher stakes will have to moderate, since sectarian appeals will bring in lesser dividends. “Even the Shiv Sena is turning moderate,” says Tiwari. Caste, language and even religion could become less important though not instantly. “For a migrant, caste will be less of a factor in Mumbai than back home in Bihar or UP,” says Nirupam. “But that is looking long into the future,” cautions K.S. Sivaramakrishan of Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.