How the Lok Sabha election 2024 bust the urban-rural myth

The BJP has lost more ground in rapidly urbanising areas—places witnessing faster rural-to-urban transition—than in areas seeing slower urbanisation.

Published : Jun 25, 2024 20:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

At a brick kiln in Anandapuram, some 30 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Millions of people migrate from rural areas to cities and suburban areas every year in search of work.

At a brick kiln in Anandapuram, some 30 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Millions of people migrate from rural areas to cities and suburban areas every year in search of work. | Photo Credit: K.R. DEEPAK

In which areas exactly did the BJP lose the majority? In this article we analyse the outcome of Election 2024 in rural and urban areas across the country. Although India is primarily a rural country (the national urbanisation rate was 31.1 per cent in the 2011 Census) and the urban electorate makes up only 35 per cent of the total electorate, the pace of urban transformation is high.

According to the UN, about 675 million people will be living in cities by 2035. Cities and the villages differ in terms of economic profile and electoral issues, and there are big differences also in the turnouts of urban and rural voters. Political parties also have very different electoral bases across the rural-urban divide.

In a country at the cusp of large-scale urban transformation, it is pertinent to analyse the electoral outcomes from this angle and over a period of time. To look at these variations, we have used electoral data culled since 2009, and at European Space Agency data.

The fuzzy rural-urban divide

The identification of parliamentary constituencies (PCs) as rural or urban is not a straightforward issue. The PCs often cut across administrative boundaries and across villages and cities. They could often be a mix of various kinds of localities, ranging from low-density rural areas to compact and dense urban settlements and cities.

Between the traditional binaries of rural and the urban lie suburban or peri-urban areas, which are socio-economically dynamic in nature. These are the places where the transition from agriculture to non-agricultural activities is high, and the forces of social and cultural changes are much stronger than in purely agrarian or purely urban societies.

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The classification of the PCs in terms of airtight constituencies such as urban and rural, therefore, makes little sense and is not enough to capture the dynamics of transition. Understanding this distinction is important from the perspective of electoral behaviour as well: the differential nature of the electorate’s demands, from basic income support to job guarantees and better education facilities to skill imparting schemes, are contingent on dynamics that occur across the rural-urban spectrum.

To capture this variation and its effect on the electoral dynamics over subsequent elections, we have used satellite data that provides a more continuous metric of place-natures within a constituency, rather than a discrete rural-urban measure. This data, which is provided by the European Space Agency, accounts for the built-up area and population densities, as captured by satellite imagery, and is subsequently modelled on the basis of several parameters.

Satellite data

Instead of discrete categories of rural or urban, the use of this data facilitates a gradation of urbanisation within a constituency, as shown in Chart 1. This data helps us understand—as the share of urban areas (densely populated and built-up areas) increases over time in a constituency—the change in electoral representation of various parties with different electoral bases.

For example, we seek to ask: since the urban built-up area has changed in the last 15 years, what has happened to the BJP’s electoral performance in these areas over the same period? We can also ask what kind of changes are to be seen in the electoral behaviour of places where the forces of rural-urban transition are higher than others.

Commentators usually say that the BJP is an urban party, but if we look at the share of votes polled in favour of the BJP in areas with different categories of urbanisation as per our data, it shows that the party did well in places of least urbanisation as well.

A large number of job aspirants at a job fair in Moodbidri, a small town in Karnataka, on June 7.

A large number of job aspirants at a job fair in Moodbidri, a small town in Karnataka, on June 7. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Over the past decade, the party has gained significantly in every area, but the vote share gained by the BJP in urban areas has been much higher than in other locations. In 2009, the BJP’s vote share in places that were more than 50 per cent urban was merely 14 per cent, but by 2019 its share had gone up threefold. In rural areas too, the BJP’s vote share grew in double digits.

BJP’s rising vote share

From 2009 to 2019, the BJP’s vote share has continuously grown, but in 2024, a reverse trend emerged. In this election, the BJP lost vote shares in every place, but the decline was higher in the peripheries and suburban areas.

Chart 2 suggests that the BJP’s vote share is still higher in rural areas than in others. In 2009, of the total votes the BJP received, 57 per cent came from rural areas, while the share of urban votes was just 16 per cent. If we look at the votes of the Congress over the same period, a fascinating observation emerges. The total votes the Congress received in 2009 was 2 per cent fewer that the BJP’s. That is, even in rural areas the Congress was behind the BJP. It was the periphery and suburban areas that provided the Congress a lead over the BJP in 2009. After that, the BJP began to lead everywhere. From 2009 to 2014, the BJP’s vote share doubled in urban areas.

It must be be noted that between 2009 and 2024, the rural space has been reducing and urban growth has been expanding. In 2009, there were 242 PCs with less than 20 per cent urban built-up area, but by 2024, this number had come down to 179.

Chart 2 shows that the contribution of PCs with a higher share of urban areas to the overall votes polled in favour of the BJP has increased over time. This is also true for the Congress, but at a lower level. Also, this is the only constituency where the BJP gained in the 2024 election despite its overall decline of around 1 percentage point.

But here is a caveat: Places are dynamic, and urbanisation is a continuous process. Constituencies keep getting more urbanised over time. For example, the share of constituencies that were primarily rural, where the proportion of urban areas was <=20 per cent showed a consistent decline over time (Chart 3), with a corresponding rise in the share of highly urbanised constituencies (>50 per cent). Therefore, the apparent rise in the BJP’s vote share in highly urbanised constituencies (as shown in Chart 2) is a result of the rising number of constituencies in that category—which also holds true for the Congress.

At this juncture, the crucial question will be to see if any real growth in the urban population within a constituency leads to a simultaneous increase in the vote share of the BJP. We investigated this question by computing the growth rate of urban areas within a constituency from 2014 to 2019 and from 2019 to 2024—the periods that saw a dominance in the BJP’s vote shares across the spectrum.

Chart 4 shows the results: where the vote shares of the BJP over these three periods and the changes in vote shares are plotted against the different urban growth categories of the parliamentary constituencies, the BJP saw an increase in vote share across the spectrum from 2014 to 2019, but its growth was actually higher in constituencies that did not experience too great an expansion of urban areas.1

In other words, these were places that are mainly the large cities where BJP already had an established vote bank and further growth prospects are limited for it.

However, areas with a high urban growth rate have actually seen a negative change in the BJP’s vote share between 2019 and 2024. This, incidentally, is also the sharpest drop across all categories for the BJP. These areas are the erstwhile low-urbanised areas.

The BJP also saw a reduction in vote share from areas that have been slow on the urban growth chart, but the drop was on a lower scale than in the rapidly urbanising areas.

Daily wage labourers waiting for work, in Mumbai on June 11, 2021. Unemployment and job losses were key issues in the general election.

Daily wage labourers waiting for work, in Mumbai on June 11, 2021. Unemployment and job losses were key issues in the general election. | Photo Credit: RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

This tells us a different story than what is usually understood from a superficial examination of data. It tells us that the BJP has lost more ground in the rapidly urbanising areas in the 2024 election than in the slow urbanisation growth areas. These are areas where it had improved its footprint in 2019. In essence, this means that the BJP’s appeal is facing a barrier in places that are witnessing a lot of transition from rural to urban, and this is happening despite the party’s gain in popularity in the village constituencies in 2019.

Findings like this are commensurate with the larger question of unemployment and job losses, which are a vital and integrated part of the demand of a specific voter bloc, specifically youths and young women, who are invariably the agents of change in these rapidly transforming spaces.

  • BJP’s vote share declined in 2024, with the sharpest drop in rapidly urbanizing areas, contrary to its previous urban stronghold reputation.
  • Analysis using satellite data reveals a more nuanced rural-urban electoral divide, showing the importance of transitional and peri-urban areas in Indian politics.
  • The party’s loss in fast-urbanizing zones suggests a potential shift in voter priorities, possibly linked to issues like unemployment and job losses in these changing areas.

Electoral preferences

It is important, therefore, to understand that while the rural and urban areas vote differently, the electoral preferences of those in the middle also matter. While the rural electorate has thus far dominated the electoral rhetoric and the resultant policy-making in the country, it may be time to look beyond these binaries and focus on the specificities of the areas that are in flux. This is also a country with large-scale internal migration, and millions of people from villages move to cities for better prospects. All this contributes to the churning and complicates our understanding of the demands and aspirations of a typical rural or urban voter.

Also Read | How agrarian anger powered the INDIA bloc juggernaut and gave BJP a major setback

The State-specific differences across these parameters, such as what differences are emerging in less developed and more developed States, can be another point of inquiry. This piece hopes to open up some of these debates for electoral pundits to consider going ahead.

Shamindra Nath Roy is a geographer who works on issues related to urbanisation. He is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Ashish Ranjan is an election researcher and co-founder of Data Action Lab for Emerging Societies.

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