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The 2024 election has changed things

Objectively, the 2024 general election has ended in victory for the NDA.

Yes, the BJP did not win an overall majority on its own, but it is still the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha.


It has won more seats than the entire INDIA coalition put together. And the BJP will probably head the new government. Narendra Modi hopes to return for a historic third term as prime minister, the first man to achieve this distinction after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962.


   So why is the Opposition celebrating? Why isn’t the BJP happy? Why was the mood at the Congress press conference on Tuesday one of joy and triumph? Why did Mamata Banerjee give her own speech acting as though Modi had been slapped down by the electorate? And why, when the Prime Minister addressed his party at the BJP headquarters, was the mood so downbeat that he had to struggle to enthuse the faithful?


   It is a complicated set of questions. And all the answers have to do with Narendra Modi, with his style of governance, and his vision of India.


Unreal expectations, real outcome


First and foremost, the Prime Minister must take the responsibility for raising expectations to levels that were almost unrealistic. It now seems clear that before the election, Modi actually believed he was on the verge of a historic landslide. A third term is almost unprecedented in Indian politics so if he had merely stated that he would return to power, that would have been enough.


   Instead, he chose to go much further. He spoke of crossing 400 seats and suggested that he could win the election entirely on his own. And the campaign was built around his charisma and popularity. Even the BJP manifesto was framed as ‘Modi Ki Guarantee’. Every BJP candidate’s campaign speech included an almost ritual invocation to the great leader. And the Prime Minister frequently referred to ‘Modi’ in the third person in his speeches.


   By shifting the goalposts, Modi gave the BJP a target that it really did not need to reach. To have said that it would win would have been enough. But the talk of 400 seats set the bar unnecessarily high. And in the process, it set the party (and the Prime Minister) up for a fall. Anything short of 400 seats or a landslide would not have lived up to the expectations it had created for itself.


   When the results came in and it was clear that far from winning a landslide, the BJP could not even manage a simple majority on its own, there was bound to be the stench of failure around its performance.


   There were other reasons for the Opposition to celebrate. The BJP’s propagandists had suggested that Modi was not content with governing India. He also wanted to remake it. There would be changes to the electoral system: simultaneous elections to the Centre and the states were one such change. Religious personal laws would be abolished. New definitions of nationality that worried Muslims would be pursued.


   The subtext to all of these claims was: this is a new India. Forget what Jawaharlal Nehru and the founders of the republic did. Modi is now so popular that he can remake India according to his own vision.


   Of course, with this result and the dependence on allies, the BJP will find it difficult to implement many of these changes. At the end of this term, Modi will leave the Indian system pretty much as it is today.


Failure of Hindutva as poll issue


  "The results show that Muslims have a little less to panic about. Hindutva has failed as an election issue."

And then there is the whole business of Indian secularism. The BJP has long believed that the existing definition of secularism is flawed; that the whole thing is no more than a massive scam created by the Congress to appeal to a Muslim vote bank. Its policies have flowed from that characterisation.


   During Modi’s first two terms, Muslims have learned to cope with alienation but they have been targeted less by the central government and more by BJP state governments and their bulldozers. But in the course of this campaign — and especially after the first two rounds of polling when Modi began to realise that the landslide he desired was slipping away — the Prime Minister began including aggressive references to the Hindu-Muslim divide in his speeches. It was suggested that the Congress would snatch buffaloes and mangalsutra away from Hindus and give them to ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those who have more children’.


   What, many wondered, would the status of minorities be in a third-term BJP government if the Prime Minister himself was talking like this?


   The results show that Muslims have a little less to panic about. Hindutva has failed as an election issue. The state where BJP leaders used the most vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric was Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP believed it had all sewn up. It was in UP’s Ayodhya where the grand Ram Mandir was being constructed and it was expected to awe Hindus and lead the BJP to victory.


   In fact, the BJP failed to even become the top party in UP, losing that distinction to the Samajwadi Party, which it had often painted as a party that appeased Muslims. As for the Ram temple, not only did it make no difference, the BJP also lost in the constituency where it is located (Faizabad, where SP candidate Awadhesh Prasad defeated BJP’s Lallu Singh by a margin of more than 54,000 votes). And all over India, the BJP lost in those constituencies where the Prime Minister had made the most inflammatory speeches (Banswara in Rajasthan, for instance) warning that the Congress would confiscate Hindu property for the benefit of Muslims.


   That is one more reason why the Opposition celebrated: it believed that Indian pluralism had escaped the existential danger that it could have faced in the BJP’s third term. Not only did the Hindu-Muslim issue fail at the polls, but the allies the BJP will now have to rely on are unlikely to countenance extreme sectarian politics.


Could things have been different?


Probably. It was the grandiose nature of the BJP’s claims and expectations that harmed it. BJP supporters suggested that a government elected with a huge majority (400 and more) would transform the system. This made it easier for the Congress to persuade Dalits with the idea that part of this transformation would involve scrapping reservation. They needed 400 seats to amend the Constitution to take away the rights of lower castes and minorities, the Congress said.


   There was also no need to personalise the campaign so much. No matter how popular Modi is — and yes, he is extremely popular — no general election can be decided by the personal charisma of one person. Even Indira Gandhi, at her peak, never relied only on her considerable charisma. She backed it up with policies.


   And though the NDA has won the election, the big revelation for the Opposition (and perhaps for the PM’s uncritical fans in the electronic media) is that Modi is not invincible. He can go wrong. In many key states, his popularity can easily be punctured. And his rhetoric can turn out to be hollow and ineffectual.


   All in all, it has been a rare miscalculation from one of India’s shrewdest politicians. In the days ahead, he will probably work out what went wrong. And if he comes to the right conclusions, then he will once again be something like the formidable Narendra Modi of old.


   But, until then, there’s no denying that the 2024 election has changed things. Modi now seems not very different from any other politician. Yes, he is smart and charismatic. But he is just as biological as everyone else.



Posted On: 07 Jun 2024 01:58 PM
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