Polls 2024: An Outcome That Augurs Well For Democracy

Polls 2024: An Outcome That Augurs Well For Democracy

Clearly, the strongman of Indian democracy has been humbled by ordinary Indians, the majority of who struggle to make ends meet and are dependent on free ration for their survival

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Monday, June 10, 2024, 12:44 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

Throughout the marathon voting process that lasted over six weeks, it was considered a near inevitability that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would win a third straight thumping victory. So assured was the prime minister and his party of winning an even larger majority that in the long buildup to the general election, they continued to claim 370 seats for BJP and 400-plus for NDA. After the long-drawn-out election came to an end on June 1, most of the exit polls also predicted the same thing: a landslide victory for the BJP.

But as the election results started rolling out on June 4, the outcome turned out to be something of a shock to the ruling regime and its supporters. While the pro-government media had projected the election as a contest between a pre-destined, natural winner and a bunch of losers who have allied under an acronym called I.N.D.I.A, rarely has an election victory looked more like defeat. The prime minister, who recently claimed that his birth was not a “biological” event but that he was sent by the God for a purpose, failed to deliver his party a simple majority, leaving it unable to form a government on its own. As Modi’s spell over voters did not work and Hindutva did not help get votes in big numbers for the BJP, the Opposition’s alliance, led by the Congress, won over voters who had suffered the consequences of Modi’s governance failures.

The I.N.D.I.A alliance shattered Modi’s aura of invincibility, cultivated carefully by the prime minister, his party and the media, with a back-to-basics message that focused on Modi’s failure to deliver even minimal economic gains for millions of citizens, who face historically high unemployment, rising prices, cost of living crisis and growing inequality even while the economy is growing at 8% and financial markets are booming. By reducing the BJP’s seat tally to just 240, the Opposition has left Modi reliant on his political allies to lead a coalition government.

Clearly, the strongman of Indian democracy has been humbled by ordinary Indians, the majority of who struggle to make ends meet and are dependent on free ration for their survival. Modi probably expected to be rewarded by the beneficiaries of his welfare schemes. Instead, he got a rebuke and it was not entirely underserved either. The aggressive Hindu majoritarianism he has pursued, to the detriment of over 200 million Indian Muslims whom he called “infiltrators”, became increasingly shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail. Accusing the Opposition, particularly the Congress, as anti-Hindu that would lock the Ram Mandir on coming to power, the prime minister scraped the bottom of the pit in portraying the entire Opposition as poised to hand the country over to Muslims.

Obviously, all this appears to have not helped and may have even hurt Modi whose vote slumped even in his own constituency. He will probably remain prime minister for another five years, but the rules of the game have changed. As head of a collation government, he will not be insulated from the pulls and pressure of coalition politics. He will be tested for his ability to walk the middle path that will need negotiations and consensus for policymaking. After towering over India for a decade, he is now diminished and will need the help of coalition partners to run the government. This is a big change for Modi from his days as chief minister of Gujarat between 2001 and 2014, and his highly centralised reign as prime minister for a decade. Given his style of functioning that is said to be autocratic in nature, he will be required to walk the talk of consensus building in governance.

During his 10 years in power, the prime minister and his party, in the style of an authoritarian regime, captured or subverted nearly every significant institution. From creating a fund-raising mechanism to take advantage of anonymous political donations, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional earlier this year, going after rival parties and politicians using enforcement agencies, freezing party bank accounts, jailing chief ministers, to splitting other political parties and engineering defections, the BJP has done it all to systematically weaken democracy and suppress dissent. That is not all. It also successfully turned a large section of the media, particularly news television, into propaganda arm of the government and the ruling party. All this is expected to change with a strong and resurgent Opposition that will hold the government to account both inside and outside Parliament.

There is a fair indication that the Hindutva politics that Modi relied on to stay in power and stifle the Opposition may be reaching its limits, given that the BJP was defeated even in Faizabad where the prime minister inaugurated a grand Ram temple on the site in Ayodhya in January. Many media people who visited the area and other parts of Uttar Pradesh ahead of the election found poorer voters complaining that Modi’s focus on Hindutva issues has done little to address their basic needs. This was also the case in other poorer parts of the country where agrarian distress is visible all over and millions are struggling to find jobs. The headline GDP figures and new highways may impress, but people, despite expansion of welfare programmes, are feeling left behind.

With his air of invincibility punctured and the kind of mandate Modi has got, it is possible that the democratic erosion may be halted and the prime minister will possibly steer the economy towards a somewhat fairer and sustainable course. It is also possible that without supermajority, he cannot push for Constitutional changes that many feared he might. The “one nation one election” proposal and the Uniform Civil Code may be put on hold. Caste census may be held, as he has now admitted — possibly under pressure from allies — that it is needed to run the country.

With the Opposition reopening India’s political space, there is hope that the new Modi government, dependent for survival on coalition partners, will have less headroom to undermine democracy and terrorise government critics. Hopefully, the parliament and state institutions will once again function as they should. The shock election outcome not only augurs well for Indian democracy but will also change the country for the better.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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