Bangalore: The Congress Firewall That Can Put To End The Urban Myth Of BJP's National Invincibility

Thursday, May 03, 2018

The general perception in the country today is that while Congress had met with considerable success in increasing its voter base in the countryside by successfully exploiting rural distress, the BJP remains rock solid in the cities. The BJP todate appear to have successfully consolidated the urban vote, where its traditional support base in the trading community has been augmented by votes from the upwardly-mobile city-dweller, the aspirational youth and the professionals - all mind conditioned by BJP's vastly superior social media edge. As one article observed:

"The transformation of India’s cities in the last 25 years from centers of production to consumer markets has helped the BJP. With the new urban working class largely atomized into small and micro enterprises and petty production, large-scale unionisation became impossible, weakening the Left. Fragmented and scattered workers from the majority community became prey to the BJP tactic of religious polarization, with voters being told that their interests lay in affirming their communal identity: “only the BJP represents the Hindus"

As India increasingly demographically urbanize, it's argued that this rural-urban divide confers the BJP an undue advantage with the Congress apparently looking clueless how to bridge this widening social divide that skews the electoral battle in favor of the BJP. 

However, early this year, serious questions to this paradigm emerged as a fallout of the 3 crucial urban by-polls - Gorakhpur, Ajmer and Alwar - that suggested the urban base of the party that provided BJP the ballast in every election since 2013 could either be turning away and/or getting disinterested in voting. 

It was simply not that the BJP suffered losses in some of their strongest urban bastions in the country. It was the whopping vote swings in the range of 20-30% through which the opposition parties were able to whip up that raised alarm bells within the BJP. It was apparent that if these tentative signals of urban apathy can gain momentum and if combined with visible symptoms of dissatisfaction with the government in rural areas,  BJP prospects for the next national general elections would look extremely desolate. 

Within this context, political commenters and election analysts would be keeping an extremely close watch on how the rural-urban divide plays itself out during the forthcoming Karnataka elections. The manner how Bangalore votes in particular would be their top focus as the city can unleash gigantic pulses that in turn can perversely condition the momentum of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Although it is often said that elections are fought and won in rural Karnataka, the delimitation exercise in 2008 increased the number of urban seats and gave the urban voter a decisive say in choosing who rules Karnataka. 

According to Election Commission data, there are around 70 urban and 154 rural assembly constituencies in Karnataka. Almost half the urban constituencies (28) are in Bengaluru city and the rest are spread across seven city corporations — 43 city municipal councils (CMCs), 65 town municipal councils (TMCs) and 92 town panchayats (TPs). 

According to the recent LokNiti-CSDS Karnataka pre-poll survey, the Congress maintains a whopping 7% lead over the BJP in towns of Karnataka while appearing neck-to-neck in the cities.

That said, while there is a general impression that the urban electorate has backed the BJP more than any other party, a closer analysis suggests that the state's urban electorate hasn't shown consistent preference for a single party in the past two decades.

So two decades ago, both the Congress & BJP were even-steven by yardstick of vote share.  The highest vote share for BJP was in 2014 during 2014 viz 56%.  Just a year later, the BJP vote steeply plunged 15% to 40% and a Poll of Polls (Read suggests they are now decisively trailing behind the Congress. 

From the vote share analysis it is clear that the Congress by and large withstood the Modi Wave. The BJP chalked up 56% by mainly cannibalizing the JDS & Others. It took hardly one year for the Modi Wave to recede. As BJP's vote share plunged, the biggest beneficiary was expectedly JDS and OTHERS. 

In 2018 what has changed??

- We have a buoyant looking  JDS with the return of the Vokkaliga vote big time. This trend should further led to the erosion of the vote share of the BJP than of the Congress. The JDS therefore looks poised to slightly exceed their 2015 BBMP performance.

-  The vote shares demonstrated by the Congress in 2014 & 2015 shows, that most of the non-Vokkaliga secular votes particularly the Muslims have already consolidated around the Congress. In 2015 BPMP polls, Muslim parties like SDPI, MIM ate into the Congress in constituencies like Shanthinagar and Govindrajnagar. This time, these parties are not contesting in Bangalore which is further advantage to them. Further the perception of a tacit understanding between JDS-BJP strengthens the consolidation of secular votes around the Congress. The Congress accordingly also seem poised to exceed their 2015 BBMP performance

- The BJP find themselves apparently hit by a quadruple whammy. On one hand they face Vokkaligas jumping their ship en masse and also experiencing a certain degree of erosion in their core vote bank - the Lingayat community. Meanwhile, the trading classes, the traditional backbone of the BJP are not only disillusioned but angry with them because of the adverse impact of GST & demonetization. Adding to their predicament, their master trump card, the sheen of Modi's has not only been lost but there also exists a strong undercurrent of  anti-incumbency against him. The Congress social media domination in the campaign effectively curbed BJP from communally polarizing the elections. The Congress succeeded in largely neutralizing BJP's communal appeal by pointing out that they too share Hinduism, albeit an inclusive version of the faith, rather than a bigoted one. They also succeeded to a large measure to shifting the campaign debate from a communal one to basic necessities that urban voters lack like city transport, pothole-free roads. Within this context, the BJP looks poised to most likely  underperform their BPMP showing of 2015.

So looking at the pre-polls again, the Cfore vote share projections may appear at first glance as a statistical outlier but don't be surprised if it is most likely to actualize. Even if we go by Poll of Poll yardstick, the Congress should be able to find itself at least  in the 17-20 seat range.

Come May 15th, Bangalore looks to deliver an earthquake that can completely turn turtle national politics, irrespective whether a majority or coalition government is thrown up as a mandate

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