The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent reversals in by-elections and the inability to form a government in Karnataka have cast doubts over Narendra Modi’s ability to repeat his historic 2014 performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This, coupled with rising crude oil prices, a depreciating rupee, an increasing cost of living, a not-so-promising job market and an economy still recovering from the aftershocks of demonetisation, have left the urban voter unhappy. The urban voters who were attracted by the market- and investment-friendly image of the erstwhile Gujarat chief minister have begun to ask questions. The growing disillusionment led to a section of the voters staying at home in the recent by-elections and the Karnataka polls. A few also switched sides.
First Signs Came From Stronghold State Gujarat
The first strains of urban apathy became visible as early as 2015 in the Gujarat municipal polls.
The BJP’s tally in municipal corporations went down from 79 percent of overall seats in 2010 to 49 percent in 2015, while Congress’ went up from 18 percent to 22 percent.
In municipalities, while the BJP’s tally remained stagnant at 65 percent of seats, the Congress’ improved from 21 percent to 28 percent.
Even in the Assembly elections in 2017—while urban seats saved the day for the BJP—its tally actually declined from 48 seats in 2012 to 44. The Congress’ tally increased from 7 to 11 and its vote share improved from 35 percent in 2012 to 41 percent in 2017 in the 55 urban seats. The BJP also lost support in its anchor vote segments: from 56 percent to 51 percent among the upper class; and from 55 percent to 48 percent among the the middle class, according to a CSDS post-election report. The Congress gained among both sections: from 25 percent of the upper class to 44 percent; and from 30 percent to 41 percent among the middle class.
Low Urban Voter Turnout In By-Polls And Karnataka
In by-polls in early 2018, the BJP lost two seats in Rajasthan where it had won by huge margins in 2014. Ajmer and Alwar are big urban centers of Rajasthan, at fifth and eighth rank by population. The Congress emerged victorious in both the seats by big margins. In Phulpur, the Lok Sabha seat which was earlier represented by the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a low voter turnout was reported in the urban areas of Allahabad West and Allahabad North: 31 percent and 22 percent, respectively, versus 50 percent across the Phulpur constituency in 2014.
In the Karnataka state elections, while the BJP gained in seat tally across the six regions, the Congress led in the Bengaluru region with 17 seats against BJP’s 11. The Congress recorded more seats in two more regions of Hyderabad Karnataka and Old Mysuru, but they were in line with expectations.
A few seats here (5-6) could have propelled the BJP to 110 seats where it would have been able to form the government.
CSDS Survey Corroborates The Theory
The middle-class support for BJP declined from 46 percent in May 2017 to 39 percent in May 2018 as per the survey.
Upper-class support has fallen from 50 percent to 48 percent. On issues concerning urban population—corruption, price rise, development, religious harmony—greater than 50 percent now feel that the Modi government is doing a bad job. The corresponding number was 35-40 percent in May 2017.
RBI Consumer Confidence Survey Rings Warning Bell for BJP
The Reserve Bank of India released the May 2018 round of its Consumer Confidence Survey along with the monetary policy decision on June 6. The survey was conducted across 6 metros—Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi. These cities have 38 Lok Sabha seats (including outskirts of metros) and the BJP won a majority of these in 2014. The survey sought households’ perceptions and expectations on the general economic situation, the employment scenario, and the overall price situation. Consumer confidence had waned in March 2018, and remained at the same level in May 2018. The Current Situation Index fell by one point into the pessimistic zone, while the Future Expectations Index showed a marginal uptick.
Households’ current perceptions on the general economic situation and inflation have worsened compared to the last survey.
Anchor Voting Segment Getting Disillusioned
The urban voter has been a big supporter of the BJP. In 2014, the party’s vote share in urban seats was 42 percent, in semi-urban seats at 32 percent and in rural seats at 30 percent.
The BJP’s lead over the Congress was the widest in urban constituencies at 21.3 percent. The party made the biggest gains among middle and upper/upper-middle class voters.
A clear trend is emerging here. The urban voter is getting disillusioned due to the job scenario, rising fuel prices and an increase in the cost of living. Even if the urban voter bloc doesn’t vote for the Congress and stays at home, it would still hurt the BJP. The party had won 104 out of 201 urban/semi-urban seats in 2014, which is 37 percent of its total tally. Its vote share lead was as high as 21.8 percent in these seats. Approximately one-third of the 36 percent population that constitutes the middle class voted for the BJP, translating into a 12 percent vote share for the party.
Class Wise Voting Preference In 2014
The urban voter is educated and asks questions.
- Why are fuel prices in India so high when global crude oil prices have declined, as compared to UPA era?
- What was the need to take a step as drastic as demonetisation, which pushed down economic growth by 1-2 percent?
- What was the hurry in bringing in the Goods and Services Tax within six months of demonetisation?
- What steps has the government taken to shore up the job market? There’s a feeling that salary hikes and bonuses have been low and that many people have lost jobs.
- Why is the NDA government following the UPA principle of providing ‘freebies to the poor’ when it vehemently opposed schemes like NREGA in the run-up to the 2014 elections?
- What is the status of the Direct Taxes Code and the rationalisation and simplification of the tax regime? The current system is seen as repulsive for honest taxpayers.
This may be the reason why the BJP and Prime Minister Modi are seen as trying to broaden their voter base to the poor, from the traditional support base of middle and upper classes who live mostly in cities, as pointed out by Raghav Bahl. But herein lies a big risk. Due to the increase in GDP, per capita income and economic growth, the population of the rich and middle class has been growing over the years. As per National Election Studies data of 2014, the proportion of upper/middle class to poor/lower class is almost 50:50 now.
“The middle class, which tends to decide who governs, has an incentive to ally with the poor to exploit the rich, but also an incentive to support the rich to avoid being exploited by the poor,” wrote political economists Torben Iversen and David Soskice in a 2005 paper. In India’s first-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system, the latter motive dominates.
The BJP can ignore the urban middle-class voter at its own peril. Remember 2004, when the National Democratic Alliance was nearly wiped out of the metro cities?
Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker who now writes on politics.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.