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EFSAS Commentary

India’s voters, in an utmost vibrant democracy, have delivered a result that has left the winner feeling like a loser and vice versa


Over seven long weeks from April to June and in the scorching heat of the Indian summer in which temperatures rose to above fifty degrees Celsius, a dynamic and energetically contested electoral exercise was witnessed across the vast expanse of India, the results of which has surprised most and elicited counterintuitive reactions from the competing political blocks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aiming for his third consecutive term at the helm, led his party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in 240 seats out of the total of 543, and thereby emerged as the single largest party, far ahead of the 99 seats won by the second placed Congress party – the primary challenger to Modi’s dominance. By itself, this should have been a result that enthralled BJP leaders and supporters. However, it reflected the loss of a whopping 63 seats for the BJP, and fell far short of the 400 seats that Modi had called for when the elections began. Modi, long used to unbridled dominance, now finds himself in a situation where he will not only have to cede substantial political space and power to his alliance partners of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but will also become vulnerable to pressure from other senior leaders within his own party who have been sitting on the wings for a decade, and from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful ideological fountainhead of the right-wing BJP. The centrist Congress, on the other hand, has been buoyed by the election results even if it did not win the 130-odd seats it had targeted, more so as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition that it headed won as many as 234 seats in total. This coalition could not only form a powerful opposition to the new NDA government, but as is the nature of coalition politics, would be ready to pounce should some of the NDA constituents become disgruntled at some stage. The Congress, which itself almost doubled the 52 seats it had won in 2019, described the election as a “moral and political loss” for PM Modi.

Analyzing the results of the elections in her article titled ‘How Modi was punished by an India he ignored’ that appeared in The Times of India, Anastasia Piliavsky wrote, “Just as pundits settled into the comfort of magical thinking – faith in Modi’s charisma and grand, national narratives – India’s voters have given us a lesson in political realism. While the digital classes in Delhi and Bengaluru cheered the moon landing and the G20 summit, and the magnates in Gujarat celebrated the temple in Ayodhya, other matters have been on the minds of people in deep India. India’s swelling GDP and its new status as the world’s fifth largest economy have been closely tracked by soaring unemployment, which has risen from 3.2% to 7.6% since 2013. This contrast reflects the gulf between the benefits of Modi’s economics for the rich and the poor. India’s banks are no longer crippled by bankrupt billionaires, foreign investment has acquired confidence. While physical and digital infra, from airports to the digitisation of money, have expanded, life choices of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable have shrunk. Crores of India’s farmers and migrant workers have been left behind. Lakhs of India’s small and tiny, often grey-market, businesses that run day-to-day India and form the country’s economic backbone, are still recovering from demonetisation and GST policies. The small-enterprise sector has shrunk to 19% of India’s GDP, from 27.5% pre-Modi. While inflation soars, there has hardly been growth in real wages since 2014 and a share of educated young people among the unemployed rose from 54.2% to 65.7% over the two Covid years. Manufacturing growth is painstakingly slow, agri profits have fallen precipitously, private consumption expenditure descended to a two-decade low, while household debt rose to an all-time high. According to World Inequality Database, India’s economic inequality is worse than it has been in a century. While pundits brooded over political messaging and national ideologies, predicting a Modi-4-ever rule, voters in the fields and on the streets were rethinking their loyalties. Modi rode high on hope with two wildcards he received in the previous elections. This year, he was judged less on his promises than on what he has already done”.

Piliavsky noted that “Ignoring local leaders, failing to reward veteran party workers and sidelining RSS have cost the party dozens of seats”. She concluded that “Once again, India rejected totalising, abstract national ideologies, proving its politics to be as local, pragmatic and relational as the Hinduism actually practised by most. Its political judgments have proven more agile and self-possessed than any sitting-room analyst’s”.

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent of the BBC, underlined in ‘Why India's Modi failed to win outright majority’ that “The results are a personal blow to Mr Modi, who has never fallen short of a majority”. Biswas continued, “Mr Modi's supporters believe securing a third term can be attributed to several factors: a record of stable governance, the appeal of continuity, efficient welfare programmes, and the perception that he has enhanced India's global image. To his Hindu nationalist base, Mr Modi delivered on key manifesto promises: revoking the autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir, building the Ram temple in Ayodhya and implementing a controversial citizenship law. Many BJP-ruled states have implemented laws tightening regulations on interfaith marriages”. Biswas pointed out that “The BJP's significant drop in seats may be linked to joblessness, rising prices, growing inequality and a controversial army recruitment reform, among other things. Mr Modi's harsh and divisive campaign, particularly targeting Muslims, could also have alienated voters in some regions. His ambitious slogan ‘Ab ki baar, 400 paar’, aiming for more than 400 seats for his NDA alliance, may have backfired, with such a massive majority raising fears of constitutional changes among the poor. Mr Modi’s party faced its largest setback in Uttar Pradesh (UP), a state larger than the United Kingdom and three times as populous”.

Seasoned Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta chose an apt title for his opinion piece in The Print –  ‘Those who said democracy was dead, sit down. Game’s on in Indian Political League after a frozen decade’. The three primary outcomes of the elections, Gupta wrote, were that Indian politics had returned to its default post-1989 pattern of coalitions after a decade’s interregnum; that the BJP under Narendra Modi now looked beatable; and that the Congress party, with a tally close to 100, had revived.

Gupta captured the sentiment of a large section of Indians when he wrote that “All those who said India’s democracy was dead and buried, over, that we were no-hopers under fascist rule, please sit down and drink Kool-Aid. You can gulp a beta blocker with it if you think you need it. But consult your doctor first. All those who said India’s voters are now such polarised, fried-in-desi-ghee Hindutva nuts that they will keep voting against Muslims, and thereby for Narendra Modi, please say sorry to the 642 million people who went out to vote in an almighty heatwave. Also note that the BJP is trailing in Ayodhya (Faizabad). The third is the most important, and I should probably have put it first. Promise yourself in future never to undermine the credibility of India’s election system. Whether it is the EVMs, the institution of the Election Commission, the election commissioners themselves, or the lakhs of personnel who toil to make this marvel possible. Peacefully, calmly and credibly. The Indian election system is a global, public common good. Never knock it. For perspective, the Mexican elections, held at the same time as India’s, saw 37 candidates assassinated. Not one was harmed here. Mexico’s per capita income is nearly four times that of India. Surely, there were many complaints and criticisms of the EC’s actions, and the institution has much to answer for. These were raised in wider public debates in the media, including prolifically on The Print. To conflate that with institutional capture or a likely theft of elections is a fantasy and a bad one”.

Gupta also raised another very important issue when he wrote, “And the last, a request to bankers, investors and fund managers, as this is simultaneously published in Business Standard. Look at the market convulsions. Please promise, especially those millions who trust you with their hard-earned money, never to let your voting preferences determine your actions on the markets. Political analysis, I agree, has a heady appeal. But it carries risks, to your reputations and your investors’ money. So leave it to people like us. We aren’t as smart as you, but we have that one attribute an innocent and impassioned market watcher may not: healthy political scepticism. The most appalling and scary phenomenon I noted in this campaign was fund houses and brokerages going out on election yatras and writing copious reports promising 300-plus for the BJP. That was your wish as voters. Your investors are paying for it now”.

Over the past decade in power, the BJP had also established a strong domination over the Indian media landscape. It has been just two days since the results were announced, but a subtle change in the narrative being projected by earlier strongly-BJP inclined Indian media houses is already apparent. Just for example, Shubhabrata Bhattacharya, a retired editor and a public affairs commentator who in recent years has consistently been generating a pro-BJP storyline, in a post-results opinion piece in NDTV seemed to have turned more neutral and factual. A similar trend is visible across the Indian media spectrum since the results were declared.

Bhattacharya, while describing the results, wrote that “This election can be described as a contest where the ebullience of the losers trumped the enthusiasm of the winners”. He noted that “In a way, the decade-long single-party dominance in the Lok Sabha will now be replaced by a coalition - the norm in Indian politics between 1991 and 2014. Modi’s hat-trick thus does not equal Jawaharlal Nehru’s unencumbered three wins between 1952 and 1962. Modi himself, who has seen unfettered power since 2001, first as Gujarat’s Chief Minister till 2014 and as Prime Minister after that, will have to adjust to the paradigm of ‘coalition dharma’ now. In 1998, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) made Atal Behari Vajpayee yield the post of Lok Sabha Speaker. Apart from him, the BJP’s other major ally, the Janata Dal (United)'s (JD-U) Nitish Kumar, is also known to be a hard bargainer. Both Naidu and Nitish had been Modi’s contemporaries in their respective states when he was at the helm in Gujarat. Today, the two have emerged as kingmakers… A lot will depend on the BJP's coalition management, and in that, a leaf from the Vajpayee era may be of help”.

Earlier critical of the Congress, Bhattacharya, post-results, had this to say – “For the opposition, this marks a big resurgence with the Congress having reversed the bad luck of the last two elections. With 99 seats, its floor leader in the Lok Sabha will now be recognised as a legitimate Leader of Opposition (a party needs 10% seats to be so recognised, but 44 seats in 2014 and 52 in 2019 deprived the Congress of this privilege)”.

Nilanajan Mukhopadhyay, who has written a biography of Modi, told AFP news agency that “It is the first time Mr Modi will have governed in coalition without his party having an outright majority, and it is unclear what the next five years will look like”. Mukhopadhyay also felt that it would “force Modi to take the point of view of others. We shall see more democracy and a healthy parliament. He will have to be a leader that he has never been; we will have to see a new Modi”.

Shekhar Gupta of The Print believes that “This verdict signals the return of normal politics. The stage is now set for the next battles: the state elections of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Just after that, hold your breath, Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP has won only two out of five seats. For each, this result has a dire warning for the BJP… These three state elections will be the lung-opener as a new Indian Political League begins after Parliament is constituted”.

All indications are that the Indian political landscape is in for very interesting times in the months and years ahead, but for now the key winner in the 2024 Indian general elections is the country’s vibrant, dynamic, mature, and discerning democracy.