Salaam, Indian voters!

Rejecting communal politics, they have reaffirmed faith in secularism, federalism, and scientific temper.

Published : Jun 09, 2024 13:36 IST - 6 MINS READ

Samajwadi Party supporters celebrate the party’s lead during the counting of votes for Lok Sabha elections, in Lucknow, June 4, 2024.

Samajwadi Party supporters celebrate the party’s lead during the counting of votes for Lok Sabha elections, in Lucknow, June 4, 2024. | Photo Credit: Nand Kumar

So much has already been said about the political outcome of Election 2024 in TV studios, newspaper columns, and stock markets and in conversations at homes, offices, and public spaces that it may seem that there is little to add. Yet, this election was so different from all previous elections, except the post-Emergency election of March 1977, that analysts, commentators, and historians will continue to discuss it for a long time to come.

In 1977, the Emergency loomed large over the election, and one just did not know what the outcome would be. Therefore, the stunning defeat of Indira Gandhi’s party resulted in spontaneous jubilation. For the 2024 election, the spread of communal hatred, fear of intimidation, and pervasive state surveillance generated by the regime for its decade-long rule formed the context.

LISTEN: The sense of relief that Indian voters experienced on the evening of June 4 was not so much a sense of accomplishment as it was a sense of hope, a feeling of assurance that there still is hope, for the people and for India’s democracy.

From the hour the last EVM was sealed, exit polls on TV got busy in doling out the spectre of the return of an autocratic regime with unchecked power. But as the morning of June 4 progressed, and the election results started coming in, many voters heaved a sigh of relief, reminiscent of the 1977 results. Neither the hugely politicised Ram mandir nor the communal pitch of the BJP achieved their expected effect. Clearly, the Indian voter had decided to demonstrate its own judgment on the politics of hatred and fear. Though no single party secured a decisive majority and a hung Parliament was clearly on the horizon, several citizens were delighted by the results. They felt that a new hope for Indian democracy had emerged. What indeed was the nature of this hope?

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The hope cannot be described in easy terms. Let me, therefore, allude to a poem by A.K. Ramanujan. It is titled “It does not follow, but when in the street” and talks about the experience of walking out of a jail. Ramanujan worked in Baroda in his early years of teaching. The street outside the Baroda Central Jail is lined with laburnum trees. In the hot month of May every year, they blossom. Ramanujan opened the poem with a picture of the bright yellow laburnum blossom, reflecting the joy in freedom. He contrasts the holes in his shoes and tattered clothes with his eagerness to return home: “at once I know / I have a sharp and young daughter / and an old age somewhere.”

Four shades of hope

The sense of relief that Indian voters experienced on the evening of June 4 was, as in Ramanujan’s poem, ambiguous, full of contradictions, and yet palpable. It was not so much a sense of accomplishment as it was a sense of hope, a feeling of assurance that there still is hope, for the people and for India’s democracy.

There were four major shades to the hope that returned to India. One, it was hope for the families whose members lost their lives due to the atmosphere of hatred and unreason. The list of thinkers, mediapersons, protesters, innocent citizens, and hapless Dalit and minority citizens who were silenced through muscle power or bullets can be very long. The families of these innocent martyrs as well as those who faced mob-lynching, expulsion, jail terms, social harassment, and mental agony, and those who sympathised with them, fought on their behalf, espoused their cause—all would have heaved a sigh of relief on June 4. So, too, the lakhs of farmers, political activists who participated in various agitations, and students who had to fight repression on their campuses, would have said: “well, at long last”. This was the hope for a relatively non-repressive state.

Two, the minorities in India were gripped with panic when the exit polls came out with fantasised numbers for the BJP, but were relieved when the actual results emerged. They knew that the Constitution has not timed out, that it will come to their rescue and allow them to continue to peacefully belong to their country. They saw the glimmer of hope for not having to publicly demonstrate their patriotism at every step.

Three, in the past 10 years, the States felt diminished while the Centre acquired an overwhelming role. While the Constitution describes India as a “Union of States”, the States with governments of other parties started getting stepmotherly treatment, and the States with BJP governments were glorified as “double engine sarkar”. The 2024 election has flatly rejected this attitude as non-acceptable. Voters in the largest States—Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu—have clearly indicated that their interests cannot be entirely submerged in the interests of the Central government. The election results have helped India return to its constitutionally guaranteed federal structure. In fact, the hung Parliament arising out of the election results is a most powerful endorsement of Indian federalism.

Four, the election seems to have brought back a breathing space for reason and science. Throughout the past 10 years, scientific temper was sidelined. Superstition and baseless claims to scientific achievements in ancient India had become a regular part of official discourse. Senior bureaucrats and top scientists too had to toe the line. It was not just the ouster of Darwin from school textbooks but also a systematic promotion of fraudulent claims aligned with a creationist view of the material world that made this regime rather unique. The election results indicate that metaphysical claims—such as having arrived into this world as a non-biological being—received a blank response from voters. That brings back a hope that the lost space of scientific temper may be regained in the coming years.

Also Read | ‘No contest’ to NOTA: Indore scripts electoral history in 2024 Lok Sabha election

The sigh of relief heaved by the voters on June 4 had all these strands in it. People felt that a life of reason and decency may return to India, that the letter and spirit of the Constitution may still have space in India’s future, and arrogance and hubris of rulers can yet be tamed by the collective will of the people who form the very foundation of the country. Of course, no one should delude oneself by comparing the 2024 results with the 1977 results. The protagonists of the last regime stand diminished but not entirely replaced. There still is the question of the BJP’s conduct in the government formed through coalition. Will it have enough respect for its allies and also for the now enlarged opposition? Will it stick to the Parliament rule book from now on? Will it leave in peace individuals who raise dissenting voices? Will it become tolerant of criticism? And, most of all, will it accept communal harmony as the necessary condition for economic progress?

The country has to wait and see if it gets expected answers to these questions. Indian voters are a patient lot. They are capable of waiting for inordinately long periods; but when they know they need to assert themselves, they do so, quietly but fearlessly. The 1977 election had shown it. The 2024 election has reiterated it. Salaam, Indian voters!

G.N. Devy is a writer and cultural activist.

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