“We should have recognised years ago that cities are growth engines of India, which support jobs for migrants but face severe infrastructure constraints’” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 June 2015, speaking at the launch of the Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), and Housing for All Mission.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has intuitively understood the urban contribution, urban possibilities, as well as urban angst. The party has generally done well in urban India, and the emerging middle class has been stoically behind the party since the early 1990s.
When the BJP scrapes through elections, it is generally due to its urban base standing rock solid, for example, in Gujarat in 2017. When the BJP loses power, it is because there are cyclical reversals in cities such as Bhopal, Gwalior, and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and Jaipur in Rajasthan in 2018. Yet, despite tactical losses, the BJP would know it needs to sweep its urban fortresses to come back to power in 2019.
Nothing bears a strong testimony to this view than the election results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Of the 47 Lok Sabha seats, which touch the biggest Indian cities of Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Kanpur, Kochi, Kolkata, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Mumbai, Nagpur, Patna, Pune, Surat, and Vishakhapatnam, BJP won 28.
Additionally, six other seats were won by the parties, which were then aligned with the BJP.
Congress won a paltry three seats, one each in the three states which kept its flag just about afloat – Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab.
The other 10 seats went to regional parties.
The BJP or its allies got respectable vote tallies except on few seats in Chennai and Kolkata, even though they lost the election.
As the 2019 campaign approaches, PM Modi has a huge opportunity to fortify this urban constituency once again. In the last five years, the urban perception of the Modi government has been largely supportive. There have been hiccups in state elections, but at the same time, the BJP has managed to win municipal polls in several cities too.
The salaried city dwellers are amongst the most detached voter segment when it comes to day to day politics but are also the most vocal via their access to social media as users as well as traditional media as buyers and consumers.
Through 2017, when the goods and services tax (GST) went live, a narrative has been built around “what has the government done for middle (proxy for salaried) class” theme. This sentiment gained ground during the Gujarat campaign in end 2017 and continued to fester via social media through most of 2018. High fuel prices amplified the noise in the second half of 2018.
During the Modi government tenure, the gains for this class have been nominal, the perceived losses real. The inflation is down, indirect taxes on consumption have been rationalised, interest rates are down, and infrastructure is ramping up.
On the other hand, property prices have cooled off, preventing speculative bubbles, but also creating the perception that the net worth of property buyers hasn’t gone up, unlike in the previous Congress rule. Fuel price rise, especially the price of cooking gas, was again perceived as having hit household savings.
Another issue has been the perception built around the smart cities programme. This promise from the 2014 BJP manifesto was ill-defined. The programme was launched with much fanfare, but the progress has been slow.
A few cities have seen progress on specific projects, but no big-bang change has been effected for the first batch of 20 shortlisted cities. This is partly due to lack of visionary leadership in the ministries concerned through the Modi government tenure.
Finally, realpolitik has demanded that PM Modi speak a lot about farmers and the poor. His speeches haven’t had much space for the urban middle class. His own political positioning has been that of an underdog.
The urban voter has, perhaps, lost the mindshare for the PM. He sought to change that in his interviews and speeches in the last few weeks, so perhaps the gap is recognised at the highest level.
But despite these perception issues, there are two things going in BJP’s favour.
Firstly, PM Modi remains as popular as ever on a personal level with the urban voter, with no credibility deficit. The government has ticked all boxes on the intangibles which the BJP voters like – India seen prominent on the world stage, challenging Pakistan and China, the rise of clout in foreign policy, progressing through various economic surveys. So even if some voters feel they have not personally benefitted from any government programme, there’s still an acknowledgement that Modi is their first, and in most cases only, choice.
Secondly, in many cities, Congress has not seen enough of a resurgence. In cities where BJP will take on the Congress directly, the latter will likely have weaker of the two candidates, not good enough to take on the macro Modi story. It is quite clear that the BJP will make this election of choice – who are you voting for if not Modi will be the constant message.
The BJP has an advantage here and a campaign opportunity as well.
PM Modi can talk about alternatives through his urban campaign, to ensure India’s cities remain with the BJP. He can lay stress on unfinished tasks and use the example of Mumbai; how big-ticket investments have indeed been made in infrastructure and transportation. He can talk about the cleanliness drives of Indore and Bhopal, new town planning of Raipur, and Namami Gange led changes from Kanpur and Patna.
There are several metro projects approved and in progress around the country – just a few years ago, metro was the exclusive preserve of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. Roads which alleviate day to day commute problems have been built in the National Capital Region. The cities changing for the better remains a possibility, not all is lost.
Modi needs to drive home this point – that India is work in progress, certainly the cities are. By expanding the industrial base outside large cities and by improving profitability in agriculture, the government is indirectly helping cities by controlling migration and hence limiting resource crunch.
BJP needs to keep the urban voter in high spirits and ensure this voter steps out enthusiastically on the D-Day. On the balance, Indian cities may still very much be with Modi – the BJP needs to ensure this reflects in the vote.
Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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