InternationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 30-31

Why India’s election results bring hope, even in defeat

India’s six-week-long elections ended with polls projecting a landslide for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP leaders, inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had repeatedly made clear that their goal was to get 400 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of the Indian Parliament. But the vote did not turn out so well for them.

Official results showed the BJP managed to win 240 seats, down 63 seats from the 2019 elections and causing the party to fall short of the majority it had retained over the past 10 years. With its allies, it still was able to form the next government, but the Indian voters have clearly not given it the absolute mandate it wanted.

Instead, the people of India have given back meaning to democracy. They have reaffirmed that democracy is opposed to the complete dominance of one idea and one voice. They have demonstrated that in a multireligious and multicultural India, they do not accept the isolation of the followers of one religion and the mobilisation of the majority against them. They have given secular India hope that even under a new BJP government, there is potential for political change.

The election campaign season that got us here was extraordinary. Modi made the election about himself and his pursuit of absolute power. He was the face of the campaign, telling voters in every constituency he visited that they were voting for him and all candidates were his representatives. Modi also made his imperial ambitions clear. He styled himself as a Hindu emperor, trying to persuade the public that he was actually taking revenge for the atrocities of the Mughals, the Muslim dynasty that ruled India from the 16 to the 18th century, and that for the first time, the rule of Hindus was being established in India under him. He maintained that a Hindu nation was in the offing and to achieve that he needed to be in power.

In parallel, Modi also indulged in anti-Muslim rhetoric. His speeches were full of abuses and hatred against the Muslim community. He made a desperate and dangerous attempt to frighten his voters by telling them that the opposition Indian National Congress party would snatch their property and other resources and give them to Muslims. He portrayed the opposition as an anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim political force.

But running the election campaign only on an anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist platform backfired. Modi asked for an anti-Muslim mandate from his voters, and he did not get one. This is an indication that there is a limit to the rise of the politics of hatred in India. It is also an indication that it is a mistake to overlook people’s daily needs in favour of polarising rhetoric.

All the Hindu youth I have spoken to have told me that by lulling them into a belief of a Hindu nation, this government has destroyed their present. There is no work and no economic prospects for them. Economic distress is palpable across rural India. The youth saw that Modi was hiding his incompetence by indulging in the rhetoric of a Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim hatred, so many of them decided to campaign against him.

The BJP also suffered an important symbolic defeat in the Ayodhya constituency, where in January Modi consecrated a new temple dedicated to Ram, one of the most revered Hindu gods. The city of Ayodhya played a central role in the rise of Hindu nationalist politics and the BJP with the 1992 demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque and the subsequent drive to build the Hindu temple in its place. The opening of the shrine was a key moment in the BJP’s electoral campaign. Nevertheless, the people of Ayodhya voted the ruling party out.

Modi also won his own seat in Varanasi, another holy city he claims to have transformed, by a bit more than 150,000 votes, a much smaller margin than in the 2019 elections, when he won by almost 480,000. People voted against the BJP also out of fear that the party could use an absolute majority to change the constitution. The Dalits and the underprivileged mobilised against this prospect, worried that all the rights they had gained through the constitution would be taken away.

The opposition – finally united after years of rivalry under the banner of the INDIA Alliance – also did a good job in rallying voters to defend India’s constitutional democracy. Although it effectively lost the election, it improved its position in the Lok Sabha, and it did so in the face of a myriad of challenges.

Before the election, the opposition was falling way behind the BJP in fundraising. The situation only worsened when money was forcibly withdrawn from the account of the largest opposition party, Congress, by government agencies and its bank accounts were sealed.

Opposition leaders also experienced harassment by the authorities, some facing raids and cases filed against them. The chief ministers of Jharkhand and Delhi, members of two opposition parties, were arrested just months before the elections began. The opposition also had to grapple with a hostile media environment. Over the past 10 years, the dominant media outlets have been transformed into propaganda platforms for the BJP. During the election campaign, the mainstream media demonstrated a clear bias against the opposition.

Along with all this, for the first time in the history of India, the Election Commission also openly worked in favour of the BJP. It maintained silence on the repeated violations of the election code of conduct by Modi and his party and turned a blind eye to complaints of voter suppression and voter list manipulation.

The message Indian voters sent to the BJP and the rest of the political elite is clear. They want the return of decency, civility and mutual respect. They reject the abusive political language of the BJP, which humiliates and insults specific communities and demonises them. They recognise the threat to the constitutional idea of India in the form of the Modi-led BJP.

The Indian voters have given a mandate to safeguard secularism in India, protect the rights of minorities and respect a pluralistic society. It is a mandate in favour of the values of equality, liberty, justice and fraternity. One should hope that the constitutional institutions of India will understand its meaning and will be able to muster enough courage to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities.

This mandate is also an opportunity for the BJP to free itself from Modi’s arrogant grip and start functioning as a normal political party. Right now, everyone in the BJP has become just a henchman or a minion of the party leader. Political observers have noted that all powerful leaders of the BJP have either been eased out or marginalised by Modi who, along with Amit Shah, has captured the party. These election results have given a chance to India as it knew itself. India, which has been badly wounded by the politics of Hindu nationalism in the past 10 years, can now heal its wounds.