India’s voters send a sobering message to their leaders as democracy triumphs

The voters' message was widely seen to be against the "excesses" of the Modi era -- just like it was against Mrs Gandhi 47 years ago.

Tarun Basu Jun 06, 2024
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Lok Sabha Election 2024 (Photo: Twitter)

In 1977,  the Indian electorate gave a stunning verdict that turfed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was ruling the country with an iron fist, out of power. Her shock defeat, in her second five-year term, was blamed on the "excesses" of her emergency rule through which she had suspended civil liberties, censored media and jailed hundreds of opposition leaders. Her defeat was all the more shocking as in the pre-internet and social media era there was hardly any inkling that the same people who had hailed her not too long ago for engineering the military victory over Pakistan in its eastern part that led to the creation of Bangladesh would teach her a political lesson through the ballot so quickly.  

Nearly half a century later, the Indian electorate -  who braved the scorching summer sun, trekked long distances and resisted blandishments to vote belying cynicism about the political acuity of the poor and illiterate voter - delivered another stunning message to the country's political class, particularly the governing elite. It's that you cannot rule India by dividing its people; that religion cannot be used to pit one community against the other; that name, dynasty and political weight of candidates do not matter but work does; and that changes are good in a democracy.  

From Kashmir in the north to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in the central Indian heartland, to Kerala and 'Tamil Nadu in the far south of the country; from Gujarat in the west to the country's remote northeastern states, the verdict of a diverse electorate in a multireligious, multilingual, multicultural nation stood out for its clarity - do not take us for granted!

The message was nowhere more stark than in Faizabad, in Uttar Pradesh, considered the political bastion of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually launched his election campaign on January 22, 2024 when he presided over the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, projecting it as part of a Hindu renaissance after centuries of subjugation by Muslim invaders and colonial powers. The temple town, believed to be the birthplace of Ram in his earthly incarnation, holds special religious significance for the country's majority Hindus and the BJP hoped to politically capitalise on its majoritarian agenda to ride to power for a third consecutive term in this election. 

Rude shocks in bastion

But they were in for a rude shock as BJP lost the election at Faizabad, where Ayodhya is located, with the local people reportedly unhappy over their political exploitation, religious division and loss of homes and livelihood of the poor in the name of modernisation of a historic pilgrim town. 

There were such rude awakenings galore for the ruling dispensation after results of at least seven exit polls predicted that the BJP and its allies would win 350-380 seats of the 543 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament, with at least one saying it would cross the 400 mark that Modi had loudly proclaimed his alliance would get at the beginning of the election campaign. 

The near halving of the wins from Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous and politically consequential state with 220 million people where BJP's numbers plummeted from 62 in 2019 to 33 this time, was attributed in many ways to the polarising campaign that Modi and the state chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest turned Muslim-bashing politician, conducted where they raised fears that if the Congress-led INDIA opposition group came to power it would give away Hindu wealth and jobs to Muslims who they equated with "invaders". 

The voters' message was widely seen to be against the "excesses" of the Modi era -- just like it was against Mrs Gandhi 47 years ago. Modi remains by far the most popular politician, and his BJP still got more seats than all other parties put together, but with 240 seats in a house of 543 they were left far short of a parliamentary majority of 272, which must have been pretty galling for the prime minister who had sought a 400-plus mandate to be able to pilot radical changes that would require a two-third majority in parliament. But the opposition was able to drive home that the government was becoming increasingly "fascist" with its divisive agenda, intimidatory tactics against opposition politicians, browbeating of the media, and the crackdown on dissent in the arts, academic and civil society space. 

Making the vote count

But the voters' message was not just for the ruling party; it was for the opposition as well. The 26-party alliance, whose sole glue was the removal of Modi from power, made substantial gains in the name of "restoration of democracy" but not enough to form a government. Many Indians feel that a strong leader like Modi, albeit heading a coalition for the first time with its checks and balances, would be infinitely better than a ragtag coalition whose clashing ambitions and regional pulls would make stable governance at the centre untenable. 

Despite reservations about the fair conduct of the elections, especially the probity of the counting process which involved a record turnout of 642 million voters, including 312 million women who voted through  5.5 million electronic voting machines in more than a million polling stations across the country, there were virtually no protests once the results were declared.  What was remarkable was that despite the sheer scale of the elections - which involved setting up polling stations for even a single voter in remote regions, be it a forest or high altitudes - there were no major incidents of violence reported either in a nation dubbed "the world’s largest democracy.” 

In India the world’s biggest electorate has just shown how democracy can rebuke out-of-touch elites, limit the concentration of power and change a country’s destiny, said The Economist. That India's vibrant democracy has proved its resilience once again is a testament to the will of the ordinary Indian who has shown time and again that when democracy is in danger it is their vote that will make it count.
 
(The author is a veteran editor and commentator. Views are personal.) 

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Vipin Khanna
Thu, 06/06/2024 - 21:57
Excellent analysis. Hope we see radical changes in the way the government operates for next 4 years
Tishita Chopra
Fri, 06/07/2024 - 07:50
Very well analysed.... An unbiased evaluation, the people of India have shown that they are aware, religion and politics can't be mixed . With the necessary checks and balances under the watchful public eye and hopefully a stronger opposition, who have now the incentive to work for the public benefit, we hope to see a more conscious government this term.
Ramesh Ramchandani
Fri, 06/07/2024 - 08:00
Very well articulated analysis of why Modi regime fared dissapointingly. Despite their Hindutva rhetoric and bashing of dynasty negative politics, Modi delivered well on economy, infrastructure and foreign affairs
and I would have liked to see him win with
273 seats at least so that he would not have to succumb to political demands of Naidu and Nitish to maintain coalition government. Modi's independent decision making power has certainly been thwarted!

Rekha Basu
Fri, 06/07/2024 - 08:42
This is an excellent essay that will resonate with a lot of readers. The road to re-democratise institutions that had been severely undermined in the last ten years is long and arduous, but, as the author has shown, given a revived opposition, not impossible.
Sreemati Chakrabarti
Fri, 06/07/2024 - 12:25
Very well-written. It shows what democracy means in India. The politics of Hindutwa can fool people only for a short time. India's voters rejected 'charso paar' much to the relief of the progressive sections of Indian socity.
Ashok Bhattacharjee
Fri, 06/07/2024 - 14:09
Yes.I liked it very much as the article is truthful, unbiased, and balanced without blindly blaming or supporting any political parties. An excellent analysis of the election results. 👌
Zora Leigh
Fri, 06/14/2024 - 18:39
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