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Election results 2024: Change wears the deceptive mask of continuity

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Indian democracy can now breathe easy. The core values of the Constitution, which came under severe stress in the past 10 years, now stand well-protected. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s politics of communal polarisation, which looked invincible, has been held in check. The people of India have given their verdict in the 18th Lok Sabha elections, and the verdict is for change.

At first glance, this may sound paradoxical, even false. How can it be said that the voters have given a mandate for change when the BJP, which has been in power since 2014, has again emerged as the single largest party in the lower house of Parliament and is, therefore, all set to lead the next government? But the way to read the outcome of the 2024 elections is to see that change has come wearing the deceptive mask of continuity.

Shrinkage in power and prestige

It sometimes happens, albeit rarely in history, that the seeds of a victor’s defeat are sown by his victory itself. This is what has happened. Narendra Modi will in all likelihood be sworn in as India’s Prime Minister for the third time in a row. That is by any yardstick a phenomenal achievement. Only Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi have achieved this feat in the past. Yet, in his hour of historic success, Mr. Modi will commence his new innings on Raisina Road with reduced authority and diminished legitimacy. That shrinkage in power and popular prestige will by itself herald a rapid transformation in Indian politics, presaging the beginning of the end of the Modi era and also the decade-long domination of the BJP. The nation’s political landscape will change significantly in the months and years to come, well ahead of the next parliamentary elections.

To the extent that there is no hung Parliament, this has been a mandate for stability. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, has crossed the half-way mark of 272 in a house of 543 seats. By ensuring political stability, the collective wisdom of the electorate has given the next government an opportunity to rule without facing immediate trials and tremors. This is good for India’s democratic polity.

Nevertheless, the reduced numbers of the BJP — at least 50 less than the 303 seats it had won in 2014 ─ provide only one of the several reasons why Mr. Modi is a diminished leader today. He had begun his campaign with the bombastic slogan of “Abki baar 400 paar” (the BJP-led NDA alliance will win more than 400 seats.) “Ek akela sab par bhaari” (I alone am enough to vanquish all of you),” he had thundered in a chest-thumping and Opposition-mocking speech in Parliament in 2023. The voters have now shown him his place.

Clearly, the days of Mr. Modi’s politics of arrogance are well and truly over. He and Home Minister Amit Shah will no longer be able to misuse with impunity the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Income Tax Department, and other coercive instruments of governance against their political opponents in a sham campaign against corruption. Even the media, large sections of which had been muzzled and turned into messengers of the BJP’s politics of hate, will surely begin to reassert its independence. So, too, will the judiciary. Therefore, the verdict has come as oxygen to an endangered democracy that would have been gasping for breath had the predictions of the exit polls come true.

New worries

But beyond his shrunken numbers, Mr. Modi will now have a new worry he never imagined would plague his third term. To stay in office, he will have to depend on two allies whose support cannot be taken for granted for the ensuing five-year term — the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) led by Chandrababu Naidu (who, besides bagging the largest number of parliamentary seats in Andhra Pradesh, has also won a thumping victory in the Vidhan Sabha polls) and the Janata Dal (United) led by Bihar’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. He will have to keep them in good humour to ensure cohesiveness of the new coalition government.

Mr. Modi’s biggest headache will come from the erosion in cohesiveness within his own party. For the past 10 years, he, ably assisted by Mr. Shah, has controlled the BJP with unquestioned authority. But that luxury will now be denied to him and Mr. Shah. This is because two big States, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the party has suffered its worst setback in this election, will almost surely slip out of the BJP’s hands whenever the Assembly polls are held there. Mr. Modi, who made U.P. his own ‘home’ State by contesting from Varanasi, has to take the highest share of blame for the BJP’s poor performance in the State. The third “strongman” in the party, U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has also been weakened by the party’s dismal showing. Add to these troubles the fact that the relations between Mr. Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are not at their harmonious best. Indeed, the RSS cadre did not work enthusiastically for the BJP’s victory in this election.

Cumulatively, therefore, “Who after Modi?” is a question that will begin to be asked increasingly in the time to come, and it will have no clear answers. This itself will open up the political space for new competitions and alignments both within and outside the BJP.

No more hegemony

When the BJP won 88 seats in the 1989 parliamentary elections, which was a huge jump from its 1984 tally of a paltry two, L.K. Advani, the then party president, had famously quipped: “The winner comes second!” Subsequent developments proved him right because the BJP kept up its winning spree and succeeded in forming a coalition government of its own in 1998. The same — “The winner comes second!” — can be said about the Congress this time, even though its jump from 52 to close to 100 is not quite as spectacular. Rahul Gandhi has revitalised the Congress, and its graph can only go up from here onwards. Undoubtedly, the revival of the Congress at the national level — along with the strong showing of the Samajwadi Party, the TDP, the JD (U), the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), the Nationalist Congress Party (Sharadchandra Pawar), the Trinamool Congress, and others at the regional level — suggests that the BJP’s hopes of extending and further consolidating its hegemony over the nation’s polity lie shattered. True, the BJP has managed to add one more State, Odisha, to its bag of State governments. But, overall, the 2024 elections mark the start of the party’s descent from the pole position it occupied in the nation’s politics for the past 10 years.

India has changed. Let’s welcome and accelerate this change.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was a close aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee)



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