Election results 2024: How India read the election, how the BJP reads the result

The average voter’s anxieties framed the contours of the 2024 election and much will depend on how the BJP responds to this

Updated - June 05, 2024 09:48 am IST

Published - June 05, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘Will the BJP continue to walk down the path of political centralisation that we have been seeing since 2014, or will it recognise the limits that the Indian voter has placed on it?’

‘Will the BJP continue to walk down the path of political centralisation that we have been seeing since 2014, or will it recognise the limits that the Indian voter has placed on it?’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Five years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promulgated the phrase, ‘aayega toh Modi hi (in the end, Modi will come’). At the time, the phrase communicated an efflorescence of support, particularly in the wake of a national tragedy and a subsequent government response in Pakistan. As the 2024 election came around, ‘aayega toh Modi hi’ gave way to a new slogan — ‘Abki baar 400 paar (this time, more than 400 seats’). The party imagined the election less as a contest and more as an anointment. While the chattering classes were focused on whether the BJP would win 240 seats or 340 seats, the average voter we spoke to understood the real implications of total control and this raised anxieties about democratic erosion. It is these anxieties that framed the contours of the 2024 elections.

Crossing a red line

For so many years, the BJP has sought to defend itself against concerns of democratic erosion by pointing to the electoral support it receives. In this way, the BJP constructed its “democratic legitimacy” from its extraordinary performance in elections. But, democratic legitimacy is not about just winning elections. It is about winning fair elections. In the run-up to the elections, two Opposition Chief Ministers were jailed and countless important Opposition political leaders had to fight against investigative agencies or the tax department. The once-hallowed Election Commission of India (ECI) seemingly acted in a partisan manner in not censuring the Prime Minister and others for blatant violations of the Model Code of Conduct. The traditional media often refused to cover the campaign of the Opposition parties and concerns. This fed into the perception that elections were meant to be a foregone conclusion, a performative exercise.

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It crossed a red line. The political theorist Robert Dahl argued that democracies require the citizens, as a whole, to be able to choose between all political actors and parties — that they can essentially compete on equal footing. Of course, all of this can be hard to measure. But in principle, there should be an “equality of opportunity” for all viewpoints and all political actors to be heard. It may be hard to define, but it is easy to spot when this equality is missing. This is why political theorist Adam Przeworski noted that a “minimal condition” of democracy is that political “alternation” is plausible, i.e., the ruling party loses from time to time.

Also Read:Election Results 2024 Updates

In short, democratic erosion occurs when institutional manipulation entrenches a particular political actor or party in power. Some have argued that India’s institutions will naturally be compromised when one party dominates. But to the democracy theorist, the causal arrow runs in the other direction — domination occurs when the state’s core institutions have been compromised.

While this might seem like high-minded theory, these concerns express themselves in myriad ways. In Uttar Pradesh, the Dalit community, in particular, expressed concerns that the Constitution might change. Elsewhere, we heard complaints about the BJP “washing machine” — the use of investigative agencies to coerce popular politicians to defect to the BJP. In the South, many we spoke to expressed a fear that the federal bargain was being compromised, and that their linguistic identities were at risk. These may all sound like specific issues, but their root cause is the same — excessive coercion and manipulation of institutions from the ruling party.

The possible ‘national issue’

Other anxieties about democratic erosion were also visible. Apart from the Constitution entering the realm of mass politics, voters recognising the extent of total media control, had turned to social media in search for alternative narratives, others spoke of fear (only after a lot of trust building, necessary to break the sullen silence) and still others of tanaasahi (dictatorship). Together, it was these issues that pushed the electoral discourse as it travelled through the seven phases. The sole campaigner, Narendra Modi repeatedly found himself on the back foot, deploying deeply polarising and divisive rhetoric and ad hominem attacks on the Congress Party to counter these claims.

The campaign was thus both a reflection and response to voter discontent emerging, in part, from the visible concerns over the democratic legitimacy of the BJP. To the extent that there was a “national issue” in this election, it was framed around concerns of democratic erosion — concerns that cut through, in different ways, across the country. Even those who were committed to voting for Mr. Modi and the BJP expressed a discomfort with the unbridled misuse of power. The election was framed by the BJP as a fait accompli. There were no demands that citizens could bring to their leaders, no issues upon which they could hold them accountable. Prime Minister Modi’s third term was inevitable.

As the campaign rolled out, the BJP’s quest for dominance raised a fundamental question that students of democracy have often grappled with — what does it mean when political parties fail to respond to concerns of citizens and yet entrench themselves in power so deeply and for a prolonged period? What kind of democratic legitimacy does the government derive in crafting and executing policy when elections are no longer seen as contests? These questions were dominant in the average voter’s mind.

In some ways, glimpses of these concerns were visible throughout the five years of Modi 2.0. As the BJP sought to centralise power within itself and use the cult of Mr. Modi’s personality to undermine formal parliamentary and electoral processes, citizens began to seek alternative sites to exert democratic pressures. The movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the farmers’ movement — one of the most critical moments in the 2019-24 government — successfully halted a major policy effort. But, it did so outside of formal processes, choosing the streets as the site of exerting democratic pressure rather than political parties, Parliament or even the polling booth. In this sense, what we began witnessing in India was a democratic process in which traditional institutions of the democracy no longer seek or command the same democratic legitimacy. Citizens were seeking alternative, informal sites for exerting democratic pressure to hold the government accountable.

As the campaign unfolded, this demand for accountability returned, albeit partially to the electoral process. When we spoke to voters about the electoral process, many expressed concerns about the lack of fairness in the process. The debate on electronic voting machine (EVM) manipulation, regardless of the truth, had percolated into the chatter in the rural hinterlands. It was this frustration and growing de-legitimisation of the BJP’s democratic credentials that, to the Opposition’s credit, it was able to harness, ultimately declaring this as the election to battle for the Constitution. The fact that the BJP had to spend a large part of the last two phases of the election reassuring the population that it would not change the Constitution, suggested that bottom-up feedback mechanisms were indeed working. Even concerns from farmers’ protest, that had moved outside of the formal, democratic process, eventually found their way into the electoral arena. The BJP sustained some of its heaviest losses in the States of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh that had been touched by the protests.

Looking ahead

As we look forward to what happens next, much will depend on how the BJP reads the result. The BJP remains the single largest party in India and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will likely form the government with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister again. From his days in Gujarat to his meteoric rise to power at the Centre in 2014, political centralisation has been core to Prime Minister Modi’s model of governance. There is little to suggest that he will change tack now. This forms the critical question for governance going forward. Will the BJP continue to walk down the path of political centralisation that we have been seeing since 2014, or will it recognise the limits that the Indian voter has placed on it? If it chooses to ignore this message, new sites of resistance will open up, but these will unlikely be within the confines of democratic institutions, as we have traditionally known. And it is in this interplay between the political centralisation and resistance, that the next chapter of India’s democratic history will be written.

Yamini Aiyar will be a Visiting Senior Fellow at Brown University in 2024-25. Neelanjan Sircar is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

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