Its high time BJP starts to worry about the growing urban apathy

The recent reversals in by-polls and the inability of the BJP to form government in Karnataka have cast doubts over Narendra Modi’s ability to repeat the historic 2014 performance in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This, coupled with rising crude oil prices, depreciating rupee, increasing cost of living, not so promising job market and an economy still recovering from the aftershocks of demonetization, have left the urban voter unhappy with the scheme of things. 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 stay at home in by-polls and Karnataka elections and few also switched sides.

Signs of Urban Apathy Started From Stronghold State Gujarat

The first strains of urban apathy became visible in Gujarat municipal polls as early as in 2015. BJP’s tally in municipal corporations went down from 79% of seats in 2010 to 49% in 2015, while Congress went up from 18% to 22% during the same period. In municipalities while BJP tally remained stagnant at 65% of seats, Congress improved its tally from 21% to 28%.

Even in 2017 state elections while it is common knowledge that urban seats saved the day for BJP, its tally actually declined from 48 in 2012 to 44. Congress tally increased from 7 to 11 and its vote share improved from 35% in 2012 to 41% in 2017 in these 55 urban seats. BJP also witnessed loss of support in its anchor vote segments of upper class from 56% to 51% and middle class from 55% to 48% as per CSDS post poll report. Congress gained among both sections of society, upper class from 25% to 44% and middle class from 30% to 41%.

Low Urban Voter Turnout in By-Polls & Karnataka

In by-polls in early 2018, BJP lost 2 seats in Rajasthan where it had won by huge margins in 2014. Ajmer and Alwar are big urban centers of Rajasthan, 5th and 8th rank by population. Congress emerged victorious in both the seats by big margins. In Phulpur, the Lok Sabha seat which was represented by the Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, low voter turnout in urban areas of Allahabad West and North of 31% and 22% in versus 50% in 2012 were reported.

Margins of BJP in Ajmer and Alwar


2014 LS

2018  By-Poll




Alwar  283,895


Source: Election Commission of India

In Karnataka state elections, while BJP gained in seat tally across the six regions, the Congress lead 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. The turnout in Bengaluru was also much lower at 50 percent against the state average of 72 percent. A few seats here (5-6) could have propelled BJP to 110 seats where it would have been able to form the government.

Region wise seats of BJP and Congress



CSDS Survey Corroborates Theory

The CSDS Mood of the Nation survey also reports similar trend. The middle class support for BJP has declined from 46% in May 2017 to 39% in May 2018 as per the survey. Also upper class support has witnessed a declined from 50% to 48%. For issues concerning urban population – corruption, price rise, development, religious harmony, greater than 50% now feel Modi government is doing a bad job, the corresponding number was 35%-40% in May 2017.

Middle Class and Upper Class Support for BJP as per CSDS


Recent Consumer Confidence Latest Survey Rings Warning Bell for BJP

The survey was conducted in 6 metros – Bengaluru; Chennai; Hyderabad; Kolkata; Mumbai; and New Delhi in April 2018. The households’ perceptions and expectations on the general economic situation, the employment scenario, the overall price situation was surveyed. These cities have 38 Lok Sabha seats (including outskirts of metros) and the BJP won majority of these in 2014. The consumer confidence waned again in March 2018. In May 2018 it was almost similar to that of March. The current situation index (CSI) slid down by one point into the pessimistic zone, the future expectations index (FEI) showed a marginal uptick. Households’ current perceptions on the general economic situation and inflation have worsened compared to the last survey.

Urban Voter, Anchor Voting Segment is getting disillusioned with BJP

The urban voter has been a big supporter of BJP. In 2014, its vote share in urban seats was 42 percent, in semi-urban seats 32 percent and in rural seats 30 percent. It won 84 percent of the urban seats it contested, but its success rate in rural seats was much less at 63 percent. BJP’s lead over the Congress was widest in urban constituencies (21.3%). BJP made the biggest gains among middle and rich/upper-middle class voters.

A clear trend is emerging here. Urban voter is getting disillusioned due to job scene, rising fuel prices and increase in cost of living. Even if they don’t vote for Congress and stay home it would still hurt BJP. BJP won 104 out of 201 urban / semi urban seats in 2014 which is 37% of its total tally. Its vote share lead was as high as 21.8% in these seats. Approximately one-third of the 36% middle class voted for BJP, translating into 12% vote share for the party.

Class Wise Voting Preference in 2014






2014 2009 2014


20% 16%




19% 19%




20% 22%



29% 17% 25%


Source: NES 2014, CSDS

The urban voter is educated and asks questions.

  • Why fuel prices are so high in India when the global crude oil prices have declined as compared to UPA era?
  • Why was the need to take a drastic step as demonetizaton which pushed down the economic growth by 1%-2% range?
  • What was the hurry in bringing up GST within 6 months of demonetization?
  • What steps has the government taken to shore up the job markets, salary hikes and bonuses have been low and 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?
  • What is the status of DTC and the rationalization and simplification of the tax regime – which is currently repulsive for honest tax payers?

This is the reason why BJP and Modi are trying to shift their vote base to poor and lower class from  middle and rich class who live mostly in cities, as pointed out by Raghav Bahl. But herein lies a big risk. Due to increase in GDP, per capita income and economic growth, the population of rich and middle class has been growing over the years. As per NES data of 2014, the proportion of rich / 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. It also has an incentive to support the rich to avoid being exploited by the poor.” As per Iversen and Soskice, in a majoritarian electoral system, of which the Indian first-past-the-post is one, the latter motive dominates.

BJP can ignore the urban middle class voters at its own peril as it is this category of voters whose desertion had cost the party dear in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

(The article was first published in Bloomberg Quint.)


  1. 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.


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