Jan ki baat: How voters humbled Modi by rejecting authoritarianism and embracing inclusive politics

India voted emphatically for political, social, and economic inclusion, for a more consultative government, and for the sanctity of the Constitution.

Published : Jun 10, 2024 14:38 IST - 15 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on December 13, 2021.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on December 13, 2021. | Photo Credit: Rajesh Kumar Singh/ AP

Emphatic. An election result that throws up no outright winners would not be normally described as that. But this was no normal election. It was an election for the democratic heart and soul of India. And, in this sense, the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, which left the BJP with less than a majority, were emphatic. An emphatic rejection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s creeping authoritarianism, his and Home Minister Amit Shah’s two-man regime, and their divisive politics, anti-federal tendencies, and idea of “development” that lined the pockets of crony capitalists without improving the lives of the common people. An emphatic vote for political, social, and economic inclusion, for a more consultative government, and for the sanctity of the Constitution and the guarantees and protections written into it for all citizens.

One could describe the verdict as Modi’s India-not-shining moment, similar to the shock defeat in 2004 of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. But it would not be out of place to go back even further and draw a parallel to the 1977 election. The last 10 years often evoked comparisons to the 1975-77 Emergency, with the Modi government’s reign of fear, his crackdown on political rivals, dissidents, and the media using Central law enforcement agencies and military grade surveillance, and the centralisation of power. This is why this verdict is as historic as the punishment by voters to Indira Gandhi in 1977 for the Emergency.

A large cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being carried into the party headquarters in New Delhi, June 4.

A large cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being carried into the party headquarters in New Delhi, June 4. | Photo Credit: MANISH SWARUP/ AP

Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi has not been voted out. The BJP is still the single largest party, with wins in 240 constituencies. It made headway in some new ground even as it lost some old. It won 36.57 per cent of the vote share, a drop of only 0.73 percentage points from last time’s 37.3 per cent. The party will form the government with the help of its allies, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the JanaSena Party, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), and other smaller parties. Together, the combine has 293 seats in the Lok Sabha. Modi is all set to be Prime Minister for a third term.

Details of the BJP’s downsizing

But whether the BJP won is a different question, best answered by the BJP’s own metrics, the target it set itself, and Brand Modi’s self-proclaimed invincibility. Given the certitudes of slogans such as “Abki baar 400 paar” and “Modi ki guarantee”, the BJP’s failure to achieve the halfway mark of 272 in the 543-member Lok Sabha has redefined the meanings of victory and defeat.

Within hours of the results coming in, Modi announced a “historic third term for the NDA”. This is only the second time in India’s history that a leader will continue for a third successive term. The first was Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. Modi has equalled Nehru, but his third term at the mercy of coalition partners, is not comparable to the thumping majority India’s first Prime Minister received in 1962. The celebrations at BJP’s New Delhi headquarters kept up appearances, but only just. “Opposition parties together could not win as many seats as the BJP won by itself,” Modi said, spinning the shock of his first experience of not receiving a majority since becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002. But the joyless faces of party president J.P. Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah conveyed the truth: the BJP, which won 303 seats in 2019, had been cut down to size.

Also Read | How women voted

The details of the downsizing are even more damaging to Modi’s aura. If the road to Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh, as they say, then the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party’s assault on the BJP fortress helped the INDIA bloc rack up an impressive 43 seats in the State. The SP won 37 seats against 5 in 2019, and the Congress 6 against 1. The BJP was reduced to 33 seats, 29 less than 2019, a defeat that ensured the party would be much diminished in New Delhi.

In Faizabad, the constituency in which Ayodhya is located, the party whose leader inaugurated the Ram temple and claimed to have ushered in Ram Rajya was left shell-shocked. The promise of the temple, built on the site of the 16th century Babri Masjid demolished by Hindutva kar sevaks under the leadership of L.K. Advani in 1992, had been the centrepiece of the BJP’s politics for decades.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on June 5, after the NDA was declared the winner of the Lok Sabha election 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on June 5, after the NDA was declared the winner of the Lok Sabha election 2024. | Photo Credit: RAHUL SINGH/ ANI

The BJP’s sitting MP, Lallu Singh, was trounced by the SP’s sharply chosen Dalit candidate, Awadesh Prasad, who won by more than 54,000 votes. In what was a BJP stronghold, its vote share dropped 9 percentage points from a high of 52.8 per cent in 2019. A 100 km south, Smriti Irani, whose claim to political fame was her 2019 victory over Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi, was trounced by K.L. Sharma, a loyal Congress worker, unknown outside the constituency. Closer to the bone, Modi trailed behind his rival in Varanasi for a few rounds before winning the seat by a little over 1.5 lakh votes.

In West Bengal, Modi and Shah pulled out all the stops, confident that the party would make big gains. But Mamata Banerjee stopped the BJP in its tracks. Her party, the Trinamool Congress, won 29 seats, 7 more than 2019, while the BJP was reduced to 12 from the 18 it had.

INDIA bloc, the real winner

Where Modi and co. can take cheer is in their unqualified success in Odisha. The party breached the ageing warhorse Naveen Patnaik’s bastion to win 20 of the 21 seats. After a quarter century reign, Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal got zero seats while the Congress bagged one.

The BJP swept Madhya Pradesh, winning all 29 seats but on ground prepared by former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, dropped unceremoniously after the 2023 Assembly election victory. With Chouhan vindicated in spectacular fashion—he won the Vidisha seat by over 8.2 lakh votes—Modi’s halo has dimmed further.

The INDIA bloc with 234 seats was on the losing side, but its several victories made it look like the real winner of this election. Most importantly, India has its strongest parliamentary opposition since 2014. It succeeded in proving that the BJP, despite its money and muscle, was defeatable. It did so despite going into the election with one hand tied behind its back. Two Chief Ministers in the alliance, Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren and Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, were jailed just ahead of the election on scam allegations.

The BJP broke up the Shiv Sena and the NCP in Maharashtra, with Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar not even able to retain their election symbols. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar, head of the JD(U), dealt a morale-shattering blow to the opposition bloc by switching over to the BJP at the last minute at being denied the position of its convenor.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at the INDIA bloc’s meeting in New Delhi on June 5, 2024.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at the INDIA bloc’s meeting in New Delhi on June 5, 2024. | Photo Credit: Adnan Abidi/ REUTERS

The Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Income Tax (I-T) department were used relentlessly to spread fear and confusion among the ranks of the opposition. The I-T authorities froze the Congress party’s funds, and it took a Supreme Court ruling to reverse it. The supposedly neutral Election Commission of India, the umpire of the great Indian election, itself seemed neutralised when it allowed Modi, Shah, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to brazenly violate the Indian Penal Code and the Model Code of Conduct and attack Muslims in their speeches.

Television channels became willing amplifiers of Modi and the ruling party. Opposition parties got little coverage or hostile coverage. The obstacles the parties in the INDIA bloc—Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), SP, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar), CPI(M), Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal—had to surmount makes their wins all the sweeter.

The Congress tally in the Lok Sabha has increased from 52 to 99. Despite the BJP’s decade-long effort to turn Rahul Gandhi into an object of ridicule, he kept at it, and has had the last laugh. He and party president Mallikarjun Kharge took the fight against the BJP to the people energetically, struck the right chords with their emphasis on securing the Constitution and social justice, and on the ground came to pragmatic and workable arrangements with its INDIA bloc partners. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and Nyay Yatra, both panned by critics as “NGO-type” work that distracted the party from the real job of winning the election, may have helped in fact to reconnect the party to the people.

Bread-and-butter issues

The seats for the opposition came in the BJP-dominated northern Hindi heartland and in the southern States. The Congress clawed its way back to a respectable nine seats in Karnataka, eight more than 2019. In Maharashtra, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), an alliance of the Congress, NCP (SP), and Shiv Sena (UBT), trounced the BJP and its allies, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP. It is now apparent that voters did not like the BJP’s actions of splitting parties (and families) and forcing defections. The MVA won 30 seats, with the Congress taking 13. Ajit Pawar was badly bitten by his wife’s, Sunetra Pawar, loss to his cousin Supriya Sule in Baramati by over a lakh votes. His party won only 1 of the 4 seats it contested, while Chief Minister Shinde’s Shiv Sena won 7 of the 15 seats it contested.

The DMK and its allies held the fort in Tamil Nadu, winning all 39 seats plus 1 in Puducherry. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) failed to open its account for the second time. Significantly, despite the hype that the BJP would win three or four seats and get 20 per cent of the vote share, the party’s abrasive State president, K. Annamalai, failed to open the party’s account. By contesting 23 seats against 5 in 2019, the BJP increased its vote share to 11.26 per cent from 3.66 per cent in 2019.

In Kashmir, the votes were clearly anti-BJP. Parties known to be proxies of the BJP fared badly. Even Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti and chairperson of the National Conference (NC), Omar Abdullah, may have lost because of their past saffron alliances. While the NC managed to add two seats to the INDIA kitty, the PDP did not win any, and Engineer Rashid, a maverick politician imprisoned since 2019, defeated former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on the single plank that getting elected would win him his freedom.

Bread-and-butter issues dominated over Hindutva. It seemed the BJP’s overconfidence had blinded it to the economic distress on the ground. The party believed that the government’s free ration scheme for over 800 million people given under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana—introduced during the pandemic and extended in November 2023 for five years—was an electoral silver bullet. But the gratitude of the beneficiaries, some of whom were dependent on these rations for their survival, exposed their economic despair. It belied the government’s claims of “inclusive growth” having pushed poverty down to below 5 per cent, and its other claim of having pulled 125 crore people out of “multidimensional poverty”. The reality is that India does not reliably know the number of poor in the country, as the last publicly released detailed data on this front, measured by expenditure and consumption, was in 2011-12. The government’s fear of numbers has even led to the postponement of the decadal census.

Chief Minister of Delhi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal (centre) holds up a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar at a roadshow in Amritsar on May 16, 2024.

Chief Minister of Delhi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal (centre) holds up a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar at a roadshow in Amritsar on May 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: NARINDER NANU/ AFP

Post-election surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti found that only 40 per cent of respondents felt their financial condition had improved in the past five years. For the rest, the economic situation had remained the same or worsened. They are more likely to have voted for the opposition. Also evident has been the anger at the Modi government’s apathetic handling of unemployment. For most people, the government’s blithe prescription of swarozgar, or self-employment, is low-paying—for women, it can even be non-paying—and does little to improve lives. The Agnipath scheme making military service short-term and contractual added to the misery of the youth in parts of north India where jobs in the armed forces have been a generational source of stable employment and prestige. The drastically pared down hiring for government vacancies with question papers leaked ahead of admission examinations for the handful of job openings added to people’s ire.

Highlights

In the 2024 Lok Sabha election, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure a majority, winning only 240 seats. This was seen as a strong rebuke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governance style—authoritarian, divisive, and favouring crony capitalism over common people’s welfare.

The opposition INDIA bloc, comprising the Congress and regional allies, made significant gains despite facing challenges like jailed leaders, fund freezes, and biased media coverage. They won 234 seats, with the Congress increasing its tally to 99 and the Samajwadi Party emerging as the third-largest party with 37 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

The election results signalled a return to coalition politics in India, with Modi forming a government with allies like JD(U) and TDP. The verdict was seen as voters prioritising economic issues (unemployment, inflation) over the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, as evidenced by the party’s loss in Faizabad despite the recent Ram Temple inauguration.

Compounding the prevailing insecurity in the Hindi heartland was the boast by some BJP leaders that 400 paar would enable a third-term Modi government to modify the Constitution. It turned out to be the party’s biggest self-goal. The swiftness with which the INDIA bloc turned this into their main plank of attack—that the BJP plan was not just to change the secular character of the country but also to remove reservation guaranteed in the Constitution plan—took the BJP by surprise and pushed the party into a rare defensive mode.

Samajwadi Party’s rise

Another important thread in the INDIA bloc’s performance was the SP’s emergence as the third-largest party behind the BJP and the Congress. This was owing to its astute wooing of the PDA—Pichchda (backward castes, including non-Yadav and Yadavs), Dalit, and Alpsankhyak (minorities/Muslim) communities—and the readiness of the Congress to play junior partner in the alliance. Moreover, Mayawati’s sometimes open and sometimes silent support of the BJP backfired this time, and the Dalit vote migrated to the SP-Congress alliance.

As evident from the debacle in Faizabad, the Ram temple fetched no electoral dividends for the BJP. The SP’s choice of a Dalit candidate in this non-reserved constituency was astute. Modi’s communally divisive speeches claiming the Congress would bulldoze the temple did not find any takers in a town where voters were seething with resentment at the demolition of homes and shops to make way for the shiny new temple. This backfiring was similar to what happened in Banswara in Rajasthan, where Modi launched his communal diatribe, demonising the Muslim community as “infiltrators” and “those with more children”. The BJP candidate here lost by over 2.47 lakh votes to a candidate of the Bharat Adivasi Party, a new political outfit and INDIA bloc ally.

Rude shock

The harsh reality check delivered by the verdict means the BJP may have to go back to the drawing board, to rethink everything from its remaining ideological agenda items to its pet projects. This will be a rude shock. Modi was so keen to create the aura of a king-in-waiting that, breaking with convention, he asked bureaucrats in every ministry to draw up a 100-day plan for his third term before the election. A day after multiple exit polls showed, wrongly as it turned out, the NDA winning 350 to 401 seats, Modi even called a meeting to review the plans.

Thousands wait to register for jobs in Israel at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) campus in Lucknow, on January 24, 2024.

Thousands wait to register for jobs in Israel at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) campus in Lucknow, on January 24, 2024. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

Now dependent on two veteran politicians, JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar and TDP chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, to prop him up, Modi may have to scrap those plans. Except for the Shiv Sena, none of the BJP’s NDA allies are Hindutva fellow travellers and will likely send the idea of a uniform civil code into deep freeze. Ditto for one nation, one election. Instead, Naidu and Nitish will take the opportunity to push their own agendas.

The TDP chief is reported to have a wish list for several ministerial portfolios, the speakership of the Lok Sabha, and the grant of Special Category Status to Andhra Pradesh. Nitish will push his own demands for important Cabinet berths and a special financial package for Bihar, aimed to strengthen his hand ahead of next year’s Assembly election.

The Congress had promised to repeal the Citizenship (Amendment) Act if it came to power. With a solid presence in the opposition benches, the INDIA bloc must make a serious bid for it. This is no time to rest or take a long break. The party has to build on its gains, reinvigorate its workers in every State. Assembly elections later this year and next year in States such as Haryana, Maharashtra, and Bihar will test its performance in the Lok Sabha election. Certainly, the BJP will be seeking to recoup its lost prestige. It can be expected to go into election mode immediately.

Era of coalition politics

India is back in the era of coalition politics, with all its pulls and pushes, and it will be in stark contrast to the past decade’s one-party rule and the authoritarianism it encouraged. A decision such as demonetisation, or the manner in which the farm laws, or the removal of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and its summary demotion to two Union Territories, would never have been sprung on an unsuspecting citizenry by a coalition government. It is a myth that coalition governments spell disaster. The most consequential decisions in recent history, from the liberalisation of the economy to the US-India civil nuclear agreement, were taken by coalition governments. A coalition engenders national conversations and is the way forward for Indian federalism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Telugu Desam Party Chief N. Chandrababu Naidu and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during the NDA meeting at his residence in New Delhi on June 5.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Telugu Desam Party Chief N. Chandrababu Naidu and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during the NDA meeting at his residence in New Delhi on June 5. | Photo Credit: ANI

Also Read | Why the BJP suffered a shocking defeat in Faizabad, the home of the Ram Mandir

Whether Messrs Modi and Shah can summon up skills they have not shown so far to nurture a coalition remains to be seen. It is also unclear who will be held accountable for the BJP debacle. In Maharashtra, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has already taken responsibility for the NDA’s poor showing and asked to be relieved of government duties to devote himself to the upcoming Assembly election. Now, long-sidelined heavyweights in the BJP such as Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, or Chouhan, may find more voice at party meetings. The reported tensions between the RSS and the BJP may spill into the open. For a man haunted by the greatness of the first Prime Minister, “After Modi, who?” is likely to become a question, but certainly not in the same context that it was asked about Nehru.

For now, the results have shown that Indian voters are too wise to be taken in by fakery. They have shown that they see the Constitution not as an abstraction but as a document with real-life implications. They know the value of a strong opposition to serve as a check on the ruling party. India’s voters have spoken, and they have spoken for democracy.

Nirupama Subramanian is an independent journalist who has worked earlier at The Hindu and at The Indian Express.

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