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Urbanization and Politics – Lessons From Gujarat

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In the recently concluded state elections of Gujarat, the stark difference in the response of urban electorate and the rural electorate to caste politics could be seen. This raises immense hope for those who subscribe to progressive politics and oppose regressive and tribal concept of caste-based vote-bank politics. It also highlights that caste-consciousness could be a huge stumbling block to a modern India. This article tries to analyse the relationship between urbanization and political discourse in the country.

Urbanization encourages individuality, a society based on an earned status of individuals as opposed to a rural society that subscribes to ascribed status of individuals. The lack of social mobility in a stagnant rural economic setup reinforces caste loyalty. The multiple social divisions of caste, religion and language tend to break down in urban and cosmopolitan areas. Most of the times, in urban areas individuals are usually respected for their personal achievements rather than their lineage or social identities.

Urbanization means different things to different people. As I am using census data in this article, I would like to quote the definition of ‘urban area’ as per Census of India :

1.  All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc.

2.  All other places which satisfied the following criteria:

  •  A minimum population of 5,000;
  •  At least 75 per cent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and
  •  A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km.

The rate of urbanization of India has been steadily increasing though it is not as fast as other developing countries like China and Indonesia. The census says that the percentage of urban population in India is 31.16% in 2011. There are reports of under-estimation of India’s urbanization based on satellite images, but I would like to set aside that aspect as the information is not from credible sources.

The percentage of urban population has nearly tripled from 10.8% in 1901 to 31.16% in 2011 at an average of 1.85% per decade. During the period we have seen a slow degradation of caste consciousness in the country among the general population (with the exception of Mandal politics of 90s) . From the year 1951 to 1991, an era of socialist economics and Congress domination the percentage of urban population has increased from 17.3% to 25.7% , an average rise of 2.1%  per decade.

However, in the two decades after liberalization, urban population has risen from 25.7% to 31.16% , an average  rise of 2.73% per decade. Unshackling the country from chains of Nehruvian socialism has contributed to faster urbanization in India. With growth of urban population, the tendency of people to respect dynasty and lineage is also decreasing.

According to the 2011 census, Gujarat is among the few big states that have breached 40% mark in the state wise percentage of urban population. The other big states which have more than 40% of population in urban areas are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

In such states, it will be more difficult to divide or mobilize any dominant community or caste for deciding an election in future. This is because, the urban setting forces individuals to think out of their tribal mindsets. In addition to that, it also becomes difficult for caste based leaders to ensure compliance of the community to their diktats. Compare this to Bihar, where only 11% of the population lives in urban areas. The state prefers caste based leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family even if the leader is convicted by courts for corruption.

The fact that Congress won 71 of their total 77 seats from rural areas shows that the caste factor had an important role in its victory. BJP’s victory in 36 of 42 urban seats (85% of urban seats), shows that urban areas are slowly moving away from caste-ism.

Better incomes and social mobility that urban areas offer, tend to reduce the connection to caste identity, unlike a rural area that forces people to hold on to their caste identities. A small shopkeeper in an urban area like Ahmedabad can hope to own a big store in future, but the same is usually not possible in a stagnant village. I would like to conclude by saying that faster urbanization is a good thing for society, development and the politics of India in coming years as it forces politicians to move towards development issues rather than caste based hankering for votes.

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