Ten key takeaways from the elections - Hindustan Times
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Ten key takeaways from the elections

May 30, 2024 11:01 PM IST

The campaign suggests that electoral democracy is alive in India even if constitutional democracy appears weakened

After crisscrossing the country for the last eight weeks, here are 10 key takeaways from an election that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of Indian electoral democracy.

Women queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the sixth phase of voting in India�s general election, in village Tigaon on the outskirts of Faridabad on May 25, 2024. India is voting in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging an election in the world's most populous country. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Women queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the sixth phase of voting in India�s general election, in village Tigaon on the outskirts of Faridabad on May 25, 2024. India is voting in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging an election in the world's most populous country. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)(AFP)

One, if there is one common pan-India strand that stands out in this election, it remains the Modi factor. The Prime Minister (PM) looms large as both a uniquely polarising and stabilising figure. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s “Modi ki guarantee” slogan is designed to make this election de facto presidential, where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s 543 candidates are dwarfed by the larger-than-life presence of just one man. Every roadside conversation eventually turns to whether Modi has done enough in the last 10 years to deserve another five. If mandate 2014 was driven by a desire for change and 2019 by an overarching sense of muscular nationalism, this election is primarily about a personality cult that towers above all else.

Two, if the BJP has made this election about a One Leader, One Nation narrative, the Opposition has tried to make this as local as possible and, to some extent, succeeded in their effort. Then be it students complaining of paper leaks in Uttar Pradesh (UP) or onion farmers in Nashik protesting export controls or micro-enterprises in Coimbatore raising Goods and Services Tax concerns, this election has shown the limits to seeking uniformity in a diverse country. The final vote may be less fragmented, but at least the street conversations reflect a healthy plurality of opinion.

Three, the politics of fear has replaced the politics of hope as a recurrent theme. The PM initiated this lurch into darkness by likening the Congress manifesto to that of the Muslim League. Then be it mangalsutra or mujra, the coarse language is meant to stoke prejudice amongst the majority community towards Muslims, a familiar trope for a party whose core base is galvanised by Muslim-bashing. The Congress warning that “samvidhan khatre mein hai” (Constitution is in danger) and the BJP might take away reservations is also driven by a fear factor. Just how the caste-communal matrix eventually plays out is uncertain but, more reassuringly, divisive emotional appeals have less impact on the ground than in TV studios.

Four, the battle for guarantees reveals the increasingly transactional nature of electoral politics. Economists may warn against freebies, but for a vast majority of Indians living on the margins, free ration, an extra 500 in the bank account, or a free bus ride are seen as genuine benefits. Not surprisingly, Rahul Gandhi’s khatakhat (staccato) slew of promises gets him instant applause rather than a mohabbat-ki-dukan monologue. This election is witnessing uncontrolled competitive populism: A mai-baap sarkar is still expected to be the ultimate provider.

Five, vikas or development is seen through a prism of class and geography. The gleaming highways are picture-perfect for the urban middle class but village roads remain less motorable. There is visible start-up energy across urban sprawls, but less so in rural India. The super-rich are eyeing a golden visa in Dubai while the farmer in eastern UP wants a solution to awaara pashu (stray cattle). The aspirational lifestyle of the affluent versus basic livelihood anxieties for the poor, the contrast in a grossly unequal society could not be starker. The inequality doesn’t just extend to the rural-urban divide, but North vs South and East vs West too. Even an average school or primary health centre in a south Indian state appears better equipped than those across the Hindi heartland.

Six, the disconnect between the leaders and citizens has only widened. The lal batti Ambassador has been replaced by a fuel-guzzling convoy of SUVs. A cursory wave here, a quick photo op there, the average neta is a distant, inaccessible figure for increasingly disenchanted voters. The assets of many rent-seeking netas seem to multiply exponentially every five years while their constituents struggle to make ends meet.

Seven, politics no longer seems to attract the best and brightest. Creeping cynicism over netagiri being driven by naked self-aggrandisement has meant fewer mass leaders who can actually make a difference on the ground. Not surprisingly, it’s the regional leaders who stand out, far more confident in their sense of rooted identity than those who flash their ministerial privileges in the national Capital.

Eight, there is a new MY in town and it isn’t Muslim-Yadav but Mahila and Yuva. These are the two key demographics that could prove decisive in 2024. Women voters have a greater agency now than ever before in making independent choices: The she voter is the core labharthi (beneficiary) constituency for all parties. The younger voter is restless, unwilling to take electoral promises at face value. Not surprisingly, the loudest street voices of dissent in this election are heard amongst the young.

Nine, social media is now an active player in the political contest. If 2019 was India’s first WhatsApp election, in 2024 it is YouTube videos and Instagram reels that have taken centre stage. Young adults in every mohalla across the country are devouring content on their mobile phones, their opinions being shaped by short viral videos. In an age of disinformation and hyper-partisanship, social media is the great disruptor.

Ten, electoral democracy is not dead even if constitutional democracy appears weakened. This election has seen fiercer competition than anticipated, the Opposition finding a voice and even a narrative that has forced a domineering government to respond. There may be no level-playing field in terms of access to institutional power and monetary resources, but at least voters still have a mind of their own with a boundless capacity to surprise and confound. It is the more silent voter who may have the last laugh on judgment day.

Post-script: I have stayed away from predicting the final electoral outcome, leaving the number-crunching to the exit pollsters. But here is a hint: Amidst heightened state-level competition, expect a clear-cut national verdict.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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