Page last updated at 18:38 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

India's moving election borders

The boundaries of 499 of India's 543 parliamentary constituencies have been redrawn for the first time in more than three decades. Soutik Biswas examines how the "delimitation" exercise will affect the general election in April and May.

Gurgaon is a rural constituency

The suburb of Gurgaon on the outskirts of the Indian capital, Delhi, is peopled by prosperous professionals living in outlandishly named condominiums with their own security and electricity.

At least, that is what most people think this showy suburb is all about - an example of the "shining" new India.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite the gleaming tower blocks and shiny shopping centres, Gurgaon is, officially, a "rural" election constituency - only 23% of its residents live in urban areas; and the poor "untouchables" and Muslims comprise one-third of its population.

Responsible for this "change" in Gurgaon's social character is India's massive delimitation exercise - the boundaries of 499 constituencies have been redrawn in the run up to the forthcoming 15th general elections.

In most democracies, constituency borders are redrawn from time to time in proportion to the increase in the number of people living in them. India's last delimitation exercise was held 33 years ago.

Changing nature

In a deeply fractured society divided along caste, religious, tribal and identity lines, redrawing the constituencies has, in the words of political scientist Yogendra Yadav, "wiped out their histories" and altered the political representation of social groups.

"It is a political earthquake of sorts. The newly drawn constituencies are starting from scratch," he says.

This, in turn, is posing fresh challenges to political party managers in choosing candidates to contest the altered constituencies. The candidates themselves are concerned about the changing character of the constituencies.

Sadhu Yadav
Sadhu Yadav has lost his constituency

Take the case of Ram Kripal Yadav, a three-time regional party MP from the Patna constituency in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

After delimitation, his constituency has been divided into two.

This means that the caste demographics of his constituency have changed: many of his lower caste supporters have migrated to the newly bifurcated constituency, and a large number of upper and middle caste voters are now residents of his redrawn constituency.

"Suddenly my constituency has become an urban one dominated by upper and middle caste voters. I will not contest it any longer," he says.

On the other hand, candidates appear to be sounding desperate to appeal to the new voters in their constituencies.

Analysts say Varun Gandhi - a Gandhi family scion - of the BJP allegedly made disparaging remarks against Muslims in a recent election speech in his family borough constituency because the redrawing of its boundaries had taken out a large number of Hindu voters and increased the number of Muslims.

As a candidate of the Hindu nationalist party, they say, Mr Gandhi was trying to polarise Hindu voters by allegedly launching a tirade against the Muslims.

Delimitation has also led to a number of candidates losing their constituencies - the former interior minister Shivraj Patel and the speaker of the lower house of parliament Somnath Chatterjee are among them. The constituencies have been reserved for scheduled caste and tribes, the poorest and most-neglected in India's stratified social order.


About a dozen more constituencies have become reserved for candidates of scheduled castes and tribes, taking the number up to 125. Many sitting MPs will have to leave them and look for seats elsewhere.

Constituencies reserved for marginalised people have gone up

The reason is simple: birth rates in these downtrodden communities have been higher than the national average, thus the rapid increase in numbers in these constituencies.

The population surge and the ensuing delimitation exercise, interestingly, is leading to greater political empowerment of these classes.

Bihar's Sadhu Yadav is one of the MPs who lost his constituency after it was declared a reserved seat thanks to a rise in population of those formerly known as untouchables. "I protested against the move," he says, "but all went in vain."

For Mr Yadav, finding a new seat could be a tough task.

Political scientists who have researched India's delimitation exercise say urban constituencies have increased as migration to cities from farm-dependent jobless villages has increased.

"The migration of unskilled workers and the rural poor to urban areas has led to the swelling of population and an increase in the number of urban constituencies," says Dr Sanjir Alam of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which has done extensive work on the delimitation exercise.

How much will delimitation affect results in the forthcoming elections?

Analysts suggest that with the increase of urban constituencies, the Hindu nationalist BJP is likely to have an edge because the party has done traditionally well in urban areas.

But, as Yogendra Yadav says, delimitation will not radically influence the overall result.

"The strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in the newly redrawn constituencies cancel each other out, and no party gains drastically overall," he says.

(Amarnath Tewary in Patna helped write this article.)

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