His expansion of welfare benefits has won him votes from rural citizens—but if he wants to build a “new India,” he must focus on cities.

Given that Modi failed to deliver rip-roaring economic growth, how do we account for Modi’s irrefutable political success? 


While latrine building and small-dollar banking are not the most glamorous subjects for foreign correspondents to take up, they mean an awful lot to the citizens who no longer have to relieve themselves in fields or rely exclusively on informal networks for credit. Presumably, it was these tangible, bread-and-butter outcomes that allowed Modi to fare so well in left-leaning regions—such as West Bengal, which had long been a Marxist redoubt—and, more striking still, among Muslim women.

But all the latrines in the world won’t make India an economic dynamo. To pull off that feat, Modi must persuade Indians to embrace an urban future. Reuben Abraham and Pritika Hingorani, both of India’s IDFC Institute, a small but enormously influential think tank based in Mumbai, have made a convincing casethat at present India’s state governments—which are each empowered to decide what qualifies as urban—systematically underestimate the urban share of their populations. According to the Indian Census, only 31 percent of the country’s population resides in urban areas. If, however, you were to adopt Ghana’s or Lebanon’s definition for what amounts to an urban area, India is almost 50 percent urbanized.

This definitional game has consequences—classifying an area as urban completely shifts the statutory responsibilities of local governments. Urban governments must do the important work of funding fire departments, building sewage lines, and drafting building standards. India’s current policy of closing its eyes to emerging cities is helping to ensure that its cities are filthier, more chaotic, and less economically productive than they would be otherwise.

And if India’s growth strategy is going to be defined by high-value services rather than labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing, it ought to heed the lessons of the world’s most successful postindustrial metropolises. Abraham and Shashi Verma, the chief technology officer of London’s transportation office, have argued that India should recast Mumbai, India’s financial capital, in the mold of New York or London, primarily by converting its shrinking port into a sleek new business district offering a high quality of life. Trivial though this effort might sound, the rise of Shenzhen, and the creation of Shanghai’s Pudong financial district, did a great deal to spur China’s urban development.