The general election of 2024, its true verdict

The election outcome could possibly lower the risk of India sliding towards autocracy

Updated - June 17, 2024 10:34 am IST

Published - June 17, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘For Mr. Modi, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were his project, and his project alone’

‘For Mr. Modi, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were his project, and his project alone’ | Photo Credit: AFP

Many iterations of the verdict in the just concluded 2024 general election exist. One thing is, however, obvious — viz., that there were no clear winners. The election threw up a split verdict — the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, 294, and the INDIA bloc crossing the 230 mark, reversing a trend seen during the 2014 and 2019 general elections, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as a clear winner and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the messiah.

Has democracy won?

A lot has again been written again about the nature of the verdict: primarily, that democracy had won and right-wing forces (more specifically the BJP) had been defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indian voter, essentially the rural voter, did prove discerning, no doubt, and gave a reasonable opportunity to the Opposition to alter the trajectory of the past decade, by forming a ‘coalition of the willing’. This could then have been viewed as a clear message against ‘authoritarianism’. Instead, a disunited Opposition failed to take advantage of the situation. The INDIA bloc which had failed to firm up a coalition prior to the election, failed once again to unite when the time came for ministry formation post the election. In that sense, the Opposition failed the Indian voter.

The BJP-led alliance managed a slim victory, though the BJP’s tally, of 240, fell well short of a simple majority. The party lost 63 seats as compared to its 2019 tally (303 seats), and was compelled to depend on the Telugu Desam Party, or TDP (16 seats), the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U) (12 seats), the Lok Janshakti Party(Ram Vilas) with five seats and a motley set of other allies to cross the magic figure of 272. The Congress, with 99 seats, and the Samajwadi Party, with 37 seats, reflect, in turn, the nature of the churn that has taken place this time. Nevertheless, it is a mistake, as many analysts have been wont to do, to say that extreme right tendencies have been curbed. For democracy to succeed in such a situation, there was every need for deft handling, and a clear understanding of what requires to be done. What the INDIA bloc gained at the hustings, was lost when the combination failed to ‘seize the moment’, and allowed the BJP to inveigle the TDP and the JD(U) to share the spoils of office. The winner has been the Prime Minister. Narendra Modi, through stratagems, rather than an electoral verdict, achieved his ambition of becoming India’s Prime Minister for the third time.

All that can be said for now, is that the election outcome could possibly lower the risk of the country sliding towards autocracy. How long such a situation will prevail is, however, uncertain. In Prime Minister Modi’s thought processes, the verdict is not a repudiation of his doctrine of how to wield power, though an overwhelming mandate could have helped set the seal on his majoritarian outlook. This can well be discerned from a careful reading of the Prime Minister’s post-election statements. In his third term, the Prime Minister appears set to prove yet again, that he is no consensus builder or that he would give up his polarising views.

Reading the signs

Already, the signs are there for all to see. The new Cabinet and Council of Ministers remain essentially the same. This is as good a sign as any that the Prime Minister does not think it necessary to effect a change or even consult anyone in any such exercise. Again, everything points to the Prime Minister dealing with his new Cabinet and his new Council of Ministers in the same fashion as previously. It appears extremely unlikely that any major shifts from past practices, or in terms of future legislation, will occur. The past practice of asserting arbitrary authority to achieve ends that the Prime Minister considers desirable, is hence, likely to continue. This will remain the Prime Minister’s leitmotif this time around as well.

More to the point, there seems to be little hope that the Prime Minister, while pushing for multi-polarity on the global stage and seeking a greater say for the Global South internationally, would apply the same logic to the situation in India. The Prime Minister does not see the election results as a verdict for a change in direction. Rather, he possibly believes that more of the same might have produced better results. Hence, there is little hope that the Prime Minister would moderate the use of central investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate against all and sundry. Again, Mr. Modi will be fixated on urban India, which in this election gave him maximum support. He is unlikely to make concessions to working-class voter families, and informal workers, especially those in the rural areas. The announcement of ‘Kisan Nidhi’ should not, hence, be viewed as a nod in favour of rural farm workers.

A hurt, but not wounded, Narendra Modi is likely to be a far greater threat to democracy and democratic traditions, than was the Mr. Modi at the end of March. Nothing could have been more galling for him — that of his own majority in Varanasi shrank from the more than four lakh votes he got in 2019 to 1.5 lakh votes this time. Equally disappointing would have been the fact that in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the Samajwadi Party (SP). Also after having spent so much time and effort on the Ram Temple issue, the BJP lost the Faizabad seat (where Ayodhya is located), to a relatively unknown opponent from the SP. Even lesser mortals would have reason to feel chagrined that fate had dealt such a cruel blow. Being Modi, he would seek avenues to overcome this insult. Hence, the worst is yet to come.

The Prime Minister was at the G-7 in Italy as an invitee. While accepting the invitation he, no doubt, believed that as India’s third-time Prime Minister, he would have another opportunity to strut on the international stage, as had been the case when the G-20 was held in Delhi in 2023. But knowing the Prime Minister, he will try to convert what in effect was a defeat into victory.

The road ahead

India must be prepared, as there is not much hope, given the disjointed nature of the Opposition. Whether the Opposition and the country can withstand the battering that the Prime Minister is likely to unleash is yet to be seen. Together with announcing a whole new package of programmes aimed at enhancing his stature, the Prime Minister can be expected to be even more intolerant of the Opposition. He is unlikely to tolerate any attempt to moderate some of the actions that he had taken during his previous tenures. The misuse of investigative and other agencies can be expected to continue.

For Mr. Modi, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were his project, and his project alone. He had invoked god himself to achieve his objective. He is, hence, unlikely to allow mere mortals to checkmate and prevent him from achieving his desired objective. The rural poor may cavil at several of Mr. Modi’s policies, but India Inc. is bound to act as cheerleaders. The United States and the West, in the meantime, can be expected to continue to provide the Prime Minister the kind of international acclaim that he craves.

India’s hopes lie less with a pusillanimous Opposition, than of a division in the NDA, and more so in the BJP itself. In regard to the BJP, the Prime Minister’s refusal to consult with the ‘high priests’ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has reportedly angered them. This has been the case for some time. If divisions get exacerbated, this could have a material impact on the BJP and its future, but it is uncertain as of now whether, or how, this could happen. Again, with the denting of the Prime Minister’s image as a winner having taken a beating, there is reason to believe that voices are beginning to be raised within the BJP against the Prime Minister’s autocratic attitude and behaviour. The big question mark, nevertheless, is how and whether the Prime Minister can adjust to the reality that he is no god, given that the mandate proved he is not invincible.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser, and a former Governor of West Bengal

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