Next spring, the government of India will embark on the largest exercise in democratic participation in human history, as its 800-million strong electorate prepares to cast their votes in the long-awaited national Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections.
After two full five-year terms in power, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government currently faces strong anti-incumbency headwinds, resulting from multiple corruption scandals, a slowing economy, and double-digit inflation. The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) recent sweep in four state assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, though an imperfect indicator of the overall national electoral mood, strongly suggests an upsurge in electoral support for India's main opposition party.
Much has been written recently about the elevation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to become the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. (Two balanced pieces on Modi's candidacy can be found here and here.) Since coming to power in Gujarat in 2001, Modi has built both a national and an international reputation for being an effective state administrator who has led the state to a strong economic performance during his long tenure. Yet, in addition to his reputation for skillfulness in governing Gujarat, his government has been accused of not taking sufficient actions to stop widespread ethnic rioting that erupted throughout the state in 2002, in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
The rise of Modi to the national spotlight will continue to be a major aspect of the upcoming 2014 national election. More broadly, however, this election represents the emergence of an aspirational electorate that has placed good governance and the ability to deliver on economic and programmatic issues front and center as election issues.
How did this change come about? Despite the recent slowdown, India's economy has averaged two decades of close to eight percent annual growth, moving tens of millions of people out of poverty and creating a catalyst for urbanization. By 2030, an estimated 70 percent of the country's new employment opportunities will be located in India's growing urban areas. In the past, the country's small middle class has often been associated with a tepid interest in democratic politics. Today, however, urbanization and economic development are giving rise to growing aspirational working and middle classes who have much higher expectations for democratic politics.
These profound structural changes, brought on by two decades of economic growth and amplified through widespread access to information, have created a political landscape that looks very different from the one in the early 1990s, in which ethnic issues, such as building a temple for the Hindu God Ram at a disputed site in Ayodhya, dominated political discourse.
Seeking to better understand the changes taking place in urban India's political landscape, I moved to India in the fall of 2010, midway through the UPA's second term, to pursue research on urban voting patterns and the nature of electoral support for the BJP. As part of a broader research project focusing on urban voting patterns in the past three national elections (1999, 2004, and 2009), over the following seven months, I conducted 70 in-depth interviews with voters from various ethnic, religious, and caste backgrounds and income levels living in New Delhi and Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi's home state of Gujarat. These interviews were with people working in the unorganized sector, the government, and the private sector, including small vendors, individual shop owners, entry-level clerks, cleaning staff, mid-level managers, secretaries, teachers, senior executives, and department heads. Though a small sample, this research identified several different types of urban voting patterns, which help shed light on the nature of voter support for the BJP.
For some voters, ethnic group identity and interests, such as building the Ram temple or Hindutva, continue to be a predominant factor influencing their vote. Hindutva literally means "Hindu-ness," but the term is commonly associated with a vision of cultural and political Hindu nationalism. For example, I interviewed a medical professor working at a public institute of higher education who said that she votes for the BJP because she connects with the party's vision of Hindutva and believes that the party is trying to protect Hindus, in contrast to other parties, which she felt advocate for other religious groups.
Other voters I spoke with had voted based on ethnic identity and interests in the past, but had begun to be more influenced by economic or other non-ethnic policy concerns. One day, when looking to purchase some news magazines, I met and interviewed an owner of a magazine stand in the M block market of Delhi's Greater Kailash 1 neighborhood. This small business owner indicated that he voted for the BJP in the 1999 election primarily because he is "deeply devoted to Ram." However, in the 2009 election, he switched his vote to the Congress party because he felt that it had performed well in the previous term under the leadership of Manmohan Singh. "Is the Ram temple issue still important for you?," I asked him. "Personally, yes but not as a voter," he said. "What is important is if parties can deliver on specific issues well. Development and growth are more important than religious issues."
A third group of voters I spoke to indicated that government performance on economic or other specific policy issues, rather than ethnic factors, has consistently been the overriding factor in their vote choice in past elections. The majority (10 of 11) of the voters I interviewed in New Delhi who worked in the private sector displayed this pattern of voting behavior. One hypothesis is that this could be related to both higher education and income levels, but also a particular relationship with the government. The economic livelihood of private sector employees is less directly tied to access to state employment and resources. Unlike poor citizens, who often must discount future rewards and are more sensitive to direct patronage-based political exchange, these voters may be on a firmer footing to focus on broader policy concerns, such as economic growth and development.
One such voter is a senior manager working at a consulting firm in New Delhi, who told me he consistently voted for the BJP. He explained that he believed the Congress party had become inadequate at governing, and that the BJP would do better at delivering high levels of economic growth and development.
This research on urban voting patterns suggests that, while ethnic interests continue be an influential political factor for a section of urban voters, increasingly more voters from India's expanding urban working and middle classes are insisting that the political class focus on governance that delivers on the economy and other programmatic issues.
Indeed, in a recent pre-poll survey of 19,000 randomly sampled Indian voters conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, government corruption and economic issues relating to development and rising prices topped the list as the most important issue for voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
To be sure, identity politics will continue to be an important aspect of Indian electoral politics. However, in the 2014 national election, the story behind the rise of Modi -- the story of India's aspirational electorate -- is one of the most interesting political developments to watch.
Allison Berland Kaul received her PhD in political science at the University of Maryland College Park in 2013. This article draws from her doctoral research on urban voting patterns and the BJP in India.