Mandate 2024: The mirror has cracked - Hindustan Times

Mandate 2024: The mirror has cracked

Jun 05, 2024 01:22 AM IST

Will the BJP recognise the constraints placed on its dominance by voters? Can the Indian voter and INDIA bloc use the space to build a new consensus on justice?

There is only one message from the 2024 general elections — the mirror has cracked. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the single largest party, but it has lost its majority and confronts the prospect of forming a government in coalition with its alliance partners. In his quest for hegemonic dominance, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, the sole campaigner of the BJP, who mesmerised the Indian voter for nearly a decade, has lost his sheen. There is discontentment and dissatisfaction on the ground and his charm is no longer enough for the voters. Their lived realities have broken the spell.

Patna, Bihar, India -May .01, 2024: Voters standing in queue for casting votes at a polling booth during seventh and last phase of Lok Sabha election at Danapur Diyara in Patna, Bihar, India, Saturday,01, 2024. (Photo by Santosh Kumar/ Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Patna, Bihar, India -May .01, 2024: Voters standing in queue for casting votes at a polling booth during seventh and last phase of Lok Sabha election at Danapur Diyara in Patna, Bihar, India, Saturday,01, 2024. (Photo by Santosh Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

This was unimaginable only a few months ago. Going into the election, in March 2024, this looked to many, including this columnist, as an election whose outcome was known before it began. The BJP had done everything — using its power to project total hegemonic control. It had centralised political power, stifled all forms of dissent, jailed Opposition politicians, silenced dissenting voices, and stifled civil society. Its control over money and media meant that all one saw, driving around Delhi (the city I live in) were Modi’s guarantees. It seemed all sites of political competition and contestation had been captured, and this was going to be a one-party campaign and a one-party victory. The saffron flags that dotted homes across the city on January 22, the images on our television screens of the PM leading the consecration ceremony in Ayodhya, the passing of the rules of the Citizenship Amendment Act on the eve of the campaign, were together designed to remind the voter of the ideological promise that 400 paar (400 plus) has to offer.

But as the campaign unfolded and the election moved through its seven phases, the voices of the people began to get louder. The BJP and the PM found themselves on the backfoot. Through the campaign, they resorted to polarising rhetoric to create a scare as they sought to enjoin the voter to join the aspirational project of a future developed “economy”. But in many ways, voters responded by reminding the BJP that it was their lived realities, their everyday lives that mattered. And thus, the mirror cracked. It is these cracks that tell the story of the 2024 election.

How did this unfold? Away from the bluster of the fastest growing economy, the third largest economy, the shiny physical infrastructure, and the booming stock market, is a story of India’s real economy: A story of rozgar and mehengai (employment and high prices). As my colleagues and I travelled through the hinterlands of rural Uttar Pradesh, this is what we heard the most. Voters still spoke of the importance of welfare schemes, ration, in particular. But this was not enough. The Opposition was quick to harness this frustration, speaking repeatedly of unemployment and jobs as the issue of the economy. In Rajasthan, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, too, in the aftermath of the farmers’ protests, concerns of farmers remained visible. The BJP, on its part, sought to polarise and the PM himself resorted to the most divisive rhetoric to distract the voters and mobilise them on the promise of Hindutva. But for voters, this was simply not enough. It was almost as though they were tired of Hindutva and polarisation alone, and were pushing to hold the government accountable for their everyday concerns. This is why many analysts called this a “normal election guided by local issues” rather than national ones. That this captures the voter’s mood is best illustrated in the BJP candidate losing in Faizabad, the home of the Ram Mandir.

That the election returned to “normal, local” issues was a consequence of not just economic distress but also of the BJP’s use of institutions of governance crossing red lines for many. The Opposition declared this an election for democracy, and social justice and to save the Constitution from the unbridled use of power that threatened democracy. It recognised something the BJP, in its hubris, ignored — that democratic erosion (washing machine, the capture of media, the possibilities of EVM manipulation were all avidly being discussed in rural India, voters were concerned) and anxieties about constitutional rights, particularly reservation, were alive amongst voters. The INDIA bloc’s true success is that it was able to channelise these anxieties into a political campaign. The INDIA bloc declared this an election to “save the Constitution” and save “reservation”.

For bringing the Constitution into the political discourse, much credit has to be given to Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav. Rahul Gandhi is the real story in this election. His emergence as a leader with credibility and legitimacy, a process that began with the Bharat Jodo Yatra in September 2022, finally consolidated through this campaign. He presented a clear and distinct political position, one that positioned him as a humane, people’s leader, centering issues of the Constitution, democracy and social justice. He was also effectively able to use Modi’s campaign errors to his advantage in his public rallies and speeches; this is a sharp contrast to the Rahul Gandhi of 2014 and 2019.

But his real challenge comes now. Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a leader by separating himself from the organisational realities and, indeed, the atrophy of the party. He has yet to take his party along to create ideological coherence. The question going forward is this. Now that his leadership finally has some legitimacy, can he leverage this to strengthen the party organisation and build forward?

The other big story is in federalism and the regional parties that have, with the exception of the BJD, YSRCP, and BRS, held on to their bastions. The TMC and DMK have, for the moment, halted the BJP’s aspirations in their states. This, combined with the Congress and alliance victories in Maharashtra and Kerala, will keep federalism in contention. There is a lesson here for the BJP, whose impatience with the federal consensus was one reason for the brakes being put on its Southern sojourn. And, perhaps, an even more important lesson from Manipur, which has rejected the double-engine sarkar, that left the state engulfed in violence and mismanagement for over a year, in favour of the Congress. Voters don’t trust the BJP to navigate this difficult terrain.

Finally, while the BJP’s path to hegemony has been halted, it remains dominant: 240 seats after two terms, is no mean feat and it is set to form the next government. But how it will choose to govern, in coalition, will depend on how the BJP chooses to interpret this mandate. Will it recognise the constraints placed on its democratic legitimacy by voters? Or will it, in defeat, unleash its basest instinct, glimpses of which were visible through the campaign?

For the Indian voter and the INDIA bloc, the verdict holds a challenge and an opportunity. Can we use this verdict and the space it has created to repair our social fabric torn by hate, divisiveness, injustice and bigotry? Is this an opportunity to build a new consensus on social justice?

Yamini Aiyar will be a visting senior fellow at Brown University in 2024-25. The views expressed are personal

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