Congress leaders are in a quandary over urban voters. Many towns and cities, responsible for the Congress-led UPA's thumping victory in 2009, are simmering with discontent and are unlikely to vote for the party in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. This could lead to a situation where the Congress may not even be able to provide outside support to any government, as the party did in the case of the 48-day AAP government in Delhi.
For decades, the Congress has been banking on rural voters, wooing them with doles and development schemes. However, in the 2009 general election, it was the support from urban voters that helped bring the UPA back to power; Of the 201 urban Lok Sabha seats, the UPA bagged 115 in 2009 (see graphic). Of the 342 rural seats, the alliance won 147, or 15 per cent more seats than it did in 2004. The voting pattern contradicted the belief that urban areas traditionally vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But instead of rewarding this new found support base, the Congress-led UPA government remained largely aloof to their issues."As many as 12 of total 19 flagship schemes of UPA focused on rural India," a Congress leader told dna on condition of anonymity. "Of the remaining, just one, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), was actually meant to benefit urban India."
Even JNNURM, a transport and infrastructure upgradation scheme, has failed to achieve anything concrete. Half its projects are incomplete and the scheme's second phase has been stalled to free up government funds for the food security scheme and other initiatives for the rural benefit.
A section of Congress leaders had even sought special schemes for urban voters soon after the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012; Gujarat chief minister and BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had returned to power by sweeping 44 urban seats. Party leaders admit that this apathy will cost the Congress electorally.
Besides, the traditional urban-rural fault line is fast becoming irrelevant, say sociologists. Poverty, earlier a largely rural phenomenon, has spread to urban sprawls in the past few decades. Urban poverty has increased by 34.4 per cent, according to the Planning Commission, with the share of urban poor going up from 18 per cent three decades ago to 26.8 per cent now. In comparison, rural poverty have declined by 15.5 per cent in the same period. "The rate of decline in urban poverty has lagged behind that of rural poverty in recent decades," said one Congress leader, quoting Planning Commission reports. "In the past, the focus on development of rural India was justified because of the large proportion of the population living in rural areas. But the number of towns and the absolute urban population has increased steadily."
It would be unfair to say that the Congress is only just waking up to this reality. Congress leaders attempted to change course by addressing issues of the educated, aspirational middle-class and urban poor at the introspection session in Jaipur last year. But the leaders concede that that the wake up call has come too late. Various leaders voiced the same concern to dna: "For over more than a year now, we have broached the issue at party forums that the urban masses have been ignored."
The Congress' indifference towards urban voters will work to the BJP's advantage is therefore a tangible conclusion. Some Congress strategists feel that the urban youth may fully rally behind the BJP, as they did in Gujarat in 2012. They say that the explosion of scams under the UPA regime and the sustained anti-government propaganda by the media too will influence these youth. The Congress' only hope now is the new messiah of the middle-class, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The Congress anticipates that AAP will bite into the BJP's votes in urban India, damaging the latter's chances of forming a government at the Centre. After the Congress' abysmal performance in the Delhi assembly elections, the party doesn't have anything left to lose; AAP had eaten into two-third of the Congress votes and one-third BJP votes in Delhi. Fed up with corruption and rising prices, Delhi's voters were willing to give AAP a chance to usher in change. Analysts say that much of the middle-class that voted for AAP in Delhi will vote for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, as Modi is perceived to be a stronger leader. But until AAP's star completely loses its sparkle, it will continue to dent BJP's vote share and Modi's PM aspirations, feel Congress leaders.
One Congress leader told dna that the party's will gambit on pumping up regional parties and AAP to force the next government to take outside support from the Congress to stay afloat.
"The Congress would then be able to give outside support to any government at the Centre, along the lines of what happened during the Delhi government formation or in 1996, when it lent crutches to Deve Gowda's Janata Dal government and Inder Kumar Gujaral," said party strategists.
But even for the Congress' best laid plans to materialise, it will first need a respectable tally. With the Congress's credibility having taken a thrashing, there appears to be little that can be done to help the party regain its image in the current scenario.