India: Key pointers and takeaways from the 2024 verdict (plus: CPIML Liberation on the need for a strengthened opposition)

First published at CPI(ML) Liberation.

The 2024 elections have delivered a major setback to the BJP by stopping it at 240 seats, thirty-two seats short of the majority. What makes this result look almost like a victory for the opposition and defeat for the BJP is that it came in India's most unequal elections till date with the media, the Election Commission and the administrative machinery all playing a highly partisan role.

Also, the number 240 appears disproportionately smaller in scale when viewed against the BJP's repeatedly declared target of 370 seats for the party and '400 paar' (400-plus) for the NDA coalition. The hype had started dying down during the elections and the BJP had recalibrated its target as 'teesri bar Modi Sarkar' or return of the Modi government for the third time in a row. But the exit polls once again rekindled the hype and created an orchestrated surge in the share market (Modi and Shah had already advised investors on Adani's TV channel to buy shares before June 4) only as a prelude to a major crash on the counting day.

Thanks to a major increase in the BJP's vote share in the coastal and southern region (Telangana 15.4, Andhra Pradesh 10.3, Tamil Nadu 7.6, Odisha 6.4, Kerala 3.7), the party has more or less managed to hold on to its 2019 vote share which dropped only marginally from 37.3% to 36.5%. By contrast, the Congress has managed to nearly double its tally of seats by registering a modest 2% increase in vote share (the party however contested only 328 seats in 2024 compared to 421 in 2019).

What made the BJP set the 400-plus target? Was it to cross the 1984 Congress record of 404 seats? Was it just the expectation of a continued increase over and above the 2019 BJP tally of 303 and NDA tally of 353? Was it based on the Yogi formula of 80:20, expecting an unprecedented consolidation of Hindu support as an electoral reward for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya? Asked where the 400-plus seats would come from, a smug Yogi had told a TV anchor 'you can count 80 from UP itself'! It was therefore particularly befitting that the BJP suffered its most stunning setback in UP where it lost as many as 29 seats including the very seat of Ayodhya (Faizabad) to a veteran Dalit leader of the Samajwadi Party. 

Blunting of fear and hate

What are the key takeaways from the 2024 elections? The biggest takeaway is that the BJP's two main weapons - fear and hate - have been blunted. The idea that Modi is invincible has taken a huge beating. The belief that a brazen anti-Muslim hate campaign can be the most effective vote-catching formula has been exposed to be hollow and false. The BJP lost at least twenty seats where Modi delivered his most hate-filled speeches in this election season.

Veritable people's movement

The second most reassuring gain has been the demonstration of the power and resilience of the people. The BJP had at its disposal not only unlimited money and media power and massive administrative backing but also what is believed to be a ruthlessly efficient election machine powered by Amit Shah's much-hyped 'Chanakya neeti' and the fabled contingent of 'panna pramukhs'. The belated formation of the INDIA coalition looked no match for the resources and organisational might of the BJP. Yet the people of India turned it into a close fight and beat the BJP in a big way right in the Hindutva heartland of Uttar Pradesh. Beyond the political constituents of INDIA, various movement forces, civil society organisations, campaign platforms and activists of digital communication media pooled their resources and energy to turn the election into a veritable people's movement.

Table 1

The BJP suffered a dent both in terms of its core agenda of Hindutva and the personality cult built around what is called Brand Modi. Unlike 2019, there was no ultra nationalist wave in these elections and if the BJP expected the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya to create an electoral storm in 2024 it could not have been more mistaken. The Samajwadi Party not only won the very Ayodhya/Faizabad seat, the BJP lost most seats in the entire region.

Many commentators have described 2024 as a 'normal' or 'local' election devoid of any national narrative. But if economic questions and livelihood concerns of the common people have become the election agenda and have been reflected in a vote against the incumbent government, surely it cannot be treated as a 'local factor'? In fact, alongside the bread-and-butter issues of everyday existence, a major component of the election discourse this time was the growing concern over the future of India's democracy and the Constitution.

The Indian electorate has proved that the concern over the backsliding of democracy or degeneration of India's parliamentary democracy into an electoral autocracy is no 'western propaganda', it is a danger deeply felt by more and more Indians across the country. The assault on various aspects of the Constitution - from federalism and reservation to secularism and citizenship - has also been directly experienced by the people and when BJP leaders themselves started linking the 400-plus target with plans to amend and change the Constitution, it quickly turned into the biggest talking point in this election season. As one of India's leading pollsters confessed in a television interview, even two months ago he would have laughed away any suggestion that democracy and the Constitution could become the common voter's election agenda, but the elections proved him wrong.

Digital war for democracy

Another major feature of this election was the rise of  YouTube as the most effective medium of political news. The degeneration of much of India's so called 'mainstream media' into a propaganda wing of the government has considerably eroded the viewership of most television channels. Many of India's courageous journalists for whom journalism is still about speaking truth to power have also had to take to YouTube as their preferred platform of communication. This has shaped the phenomenal rise of digital media in today's India and we have seen the power of this new tool of mass communication in these elections.

The videos of journalists and communicators like Ravish Kumar and Dhruv Rathee and the growing community of youtubers, the digital warriors for democracy, have put up a highly courageous and effective resistance against the relentless propaganda of hate and lies by the combined network of Godi Media and WhatsApp university. The Modi government is now understandably desperate to try and erode the freedom of the digital media and subject it to its vicious stranglehold.

BJP's mischievous interpretation

There has been a sinister systematic attempt in the Modi era to disenfranchise Muslims through large-scale deletion of names from electoral rolls and by discouraging and obstructing Muslim voters in various ways to keep them away from the polling booths. Modi even tried to present the 2024 elections as a contest between 'vote jihad' and 'Ram rajya'. Now that this shrill hate campaign and polarisation politics have failed to secure a majority for the BJP, a frustrated BJP camp has launched a renewed campaign of Islamophobia blaming the Muslim voters (and ungrateful Hindus too) for the shocking outcome.

This mischievous campaign has found an amplifier in the much hyped election strategist Prashant Kishor who had egg all over his face on 4 June after smugly predicting a return of the Modi regime with bigger numbers than 2019. This mischievous distorted narrative first trivialises the improved performance of the Congress by attributing it to a 'free minority vote bank' of twenty percent. In this 'free minority vote bank' he counts eighteen percent Muslims (a huge exaggeration which exceeds the current estimate by four percent) followed by Sikhs and Christians. The Congress vote share of about 23% is thus sought to be brushed aside as nothing significant beyond a consolidated minority vote!

This is patently untrue. The Congress this time contested nearly hundred seats less than it did in 2019, down to 328 from 421. So the vote share figure understates the actual average increase in votes polled by the Congress in seats contested. And the proportion of Muslim or minority vote in this overall vote share must also be seen in the right perspective.

The term 'vote bank' is routinely used by the Sangh brigade as a dog whistle to target the Muslim community. If Muslims in India vote predominantly against the BJP, they are perfectly entitled in a democracy to make this political choice. And this choice, nay compulsion, is dictated by the BJP's aggressive Islamophobic politics and track record. The BJP openly says it does not want Muslim votes, does not field any Muslim candidate and has now formed a jumbo cabinet with 70-plus ministers without a single representative from India's largest minority community. And the whole world knows what a period of acute insecurity Indian Muslims are having to face under the Modi regime. In addition to the various forms of communal violence perpetrated often with open administrative complicity, the last ten years have witnessed the promotion of new forms of anti-Muslim violence like mob lynching and bulldozing of Muslim homes and shops.

And yet in spite of a general anti-BJP orientation of the average Muslim voter, the Muslim vote is not really as monolithic as the Sangh brigade would like us to believe. Even if the BJP's own share in Muslim votes is understandably insignificant, some of its NDA allies (for instance, the JDU in Bihar, TDP in Andhra Pradesh, RLD in Uttar Pradesh or the JDS in Karnataka) do still poll a certain share of Muslim votes. Then there are non-INDIA parties like the BSP, AIMIM, AIUDF of Assam or the ISF in West Bengal which account for a sizable share in their areas of influence. And finally, within INDIA, the Congress is a minor recipient of Muslim votes in major states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar where INDIA allies like the SP, TMC and RJD poll bigger shares.

Solidarity of the oppressed

In other words, there can be no denying the fact that the revival of the Congress in the 2024 elections, howsoever modest, has happened not because of the consolidation of Muslim votes but because of the increased support from non-Muslim communities, Hindus in particular.

The most mischievous part of this narrative is that it blames Muslims for their declining number in Parliament.  Are Muslims responsible for the fact that the number of Muslim MPs in the 18th Lok Sabha is only 24 in a house of 543, an all-time low in India's parliamentary history? The number is low precisely because the largest single party in India's Parliament has a declared policy of shunning Muslims, and its politics and governance have always been virulently Islamophobic. To ask Indian Muslims to accept the BJP for what it is and stop looking for ways to defeat and weaken it is to justify the BJP's Islamophobia. The 24 Muslim MPs have basically come from the non-NDA pool of 250 MPs, the ratio thus works out to be close to ten percent. Had the NDA too maintained this ratio there would have more than fifty MPs in the 18th Lok Sabha.

It is one thing to ask non-BJP parties to be more responsive to the issue of Muslim representation, but asking Muslims to move away from building effective social and political coalitions against the BJP and gravitate to exclusive identity politics can only have totally opposite implications. It can only be a recipe for helping the BJP by disintegrating the anti-BJP vote and thereby ensuring greater invisibilisation and certainly not improved representation of Muslims in Indian politics. Any comparison between Sikhs and Muslims in terms of representation is also totally misplaced. Sikhs are concentrated primarily in the state of Punjab and most Sikh MPs come from this state. The Muslim population on the other hand is spread across the country, albeit not uniformly.

There are many constituencies where Muslim population ranges between fifteen to twenty percent and which used to elect Muslim MPs in the past, but the majority of Muslim MPs today come only from constituencies where Muslims comprise the largest community locally accounting for at least a third of the population. This is the impact of the BJP's divisive and Islamophobic politics. The only way to defeat this design is to forge stronger and wider bonds of solidarity among various minorities and marginalised groups, both nationally and locally, in the shared battle for democracy and justice, and the majority of Indian Muslims are already following this course. In fact, the 2024 elections have also highlighted the need and possibility of developing similar solidarity among Dalits, Adivasis and other oppressed and marginalised identities.

United assertion within parliament and beyond

The spirit of solidarity is central not just to building local or regional level social coalitions but also in fostering a coalition at the all-India level comprising a broad spectrum of ideological streams and regional parties. The INDIA coalition answers this need in some essential respects and this is why in spite of its belated formation and lack of local or state-level unity in certain states, it has succeeded in securing a high degree of popular support and electoral success.

With the declining influence of ultra-nationalist fervour and Hindutva frenzy in the electoral arena, the core of the BJP under Modi and Shah has been exposed as a crony capitalist enterprise driven by an aggressive Gujarat lobby. Increasing commercialisation of religion and domination of the Gujarat lobby and its corporate cronies have started emerging as the manifest features of the economic and political equations around the much-hyped temples and temple corridors. From UP to Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra to Manipur, the people of India have sent out a strong message against over-centralisation, disproportionate domination of the Gujarat lobby and the disaster that passes for 'double engine governments' and 'maximum governance' across much of India.

It is true that the 2024 verdict has fallen short of an outright defeat and ouster of the Modi regime. But it has surely dented the arrogance and power of the regime in a big way. Democracy has got some much needed breathing space. The agenda that has been set in these elections around secure livelihood, justice, constitutional rule of law, secular democracy and inclusive and diverse India must be backed within Parliament and out on the street with the indomitable courage and power of the people. Constitutional democracy has indeed struck deep roots in India over the last seven decades and we, the people of India can never allow fascism to get entrenched and turn India into a republic of fear and hate.

In the wake of the historic 2024 mandate, a strengthened opposition must rise to the challenge ahead

CPI(ML) Liberation

First published at CPI(ML) Liberation.

A weakened government back in office and a stronger and more energised opposition to take it on in Parliament. The net outcome of the 2024 elections can perhaps be seen only as a modest pro-opposition tilt in the balance of forces. In a functional democracy it should mean a restrained executive and consequently a restored political equilibrium in society and governance. But parliamentary democracy in India in 2024 is anything but functional. Relentless erosion of democracy has been the new normal in Modi's India since 2014. And it remains so in spite of the shot in the arm delivered by the 2024 mandate.

The Modi government must have had a fair idea of the ground reality while going into the 18th Lok Sabha elections. The prolonged election schedule was presumably to give it maximum possible time to try and minimise its losses by tiring out the resource-starved opposition in an electoral battle that could not have been more unfair and unequal. The regime did everything possible to set the tone for an ambitious and confident campaign which would not reveal any signs of weakness. All the while however it worked hard behind the scenes to firm up alliances, arrange votes and fix the machinery to save its tally from dropping below a certain level.

Without its last-minute alliance with JDU in Bihar, TDP in Andhra Pradesh and RLD in UP, it is not difficult to imagine what the fate of the Modi regime would have been in these elections. The eventual tally of 240 seats for the BJP and 293 for the NDA, including thirty-odd seats won by a narrow margin of less than 40,000 votes, is actually a product of this elaborate micromanagement and interference. But just as the BJP did not reveal any nervousness before the election - except the evident panic and desperation in Modi's speeches and body language immediately after the first phase feedback - its initial moves regarding the new government are also designed to give a 'business as usual' impression.

All erstwhile key ministers in the outgoing cabinet and advisors to the Prime Minister have been retained to indicate continuity without any change. The sanction granted by the Delhi LG to prosecution of Arundhati Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain under UAPA in a 14-year-old complaint is meant to tell the whole world that Modi is still in control and fear and persecution shall continue to be his biggest tools of governance.

While the BJP, especially the Modi camp, does not acknowledge any real decline or concern about the growing anger of the people as reflected in the defeat of a sizable number of Modi ministers and huge losses in states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, RSS functionaries including Mohan Bhagwat have sounded some cautionary notes. This is perhaps more to maintain the image of the RSS as a collective and disciplined organisation which does not approve of any personality cult than to exercise any real check on the BJP. It also probably reflects the fact that both the RSS and the BJP have of late been trying to reassert their job division within the Sangh Parivar - with Nadda claiming political autonomy for the BJP and RSS reiterating its moral guardianship.

Two decades ago Atal Bihari Vajpayee had famously talked about the need to uphold 'Rajdharma' in Gujarat in the wake of 2002 anti-Muslim carnage and Modi had replied by saying that he was indeed doing that. That was his way of telling everybody that overseeing a carnage was his idea of what kind of 'Rajdharma' should be expected of him. It got him the title of 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' (emperor of Hindu hearts). RSS has benefited immensely from the BJP being in power not just in terms of advancement of its ideological agenda but also in terms of its organisational expansion and it is not likely to do anything to destabilise the BJP's continued stay in power.

True to the Modi government's track record of misgovernance, his third term has begun literally on a disastrous note - with yet another major railway accident and massive scams in the conduct of examinations like NEET and NET. And as always, the government is in denial mode, refusing to take any responsibility for these major policy and governance failures.

Meanwhile, there is a renewed campaign of anti-Muslim violence - from mob lynchings and shop lootings to communal riots and demolitions of homes and places of worship - across India, apparently to teach Muslims a lesson for not voting for the BJP.  And there is even a clamour for economic boycott of Ayodhya's 'ungrateful' Hindus who defeated the BJP candidate calling for a new constitution and elected a veteran Dalit leader of the Samajwadi Party from the unreserved seat of Faizabad.

While fascist thuggery and violence escalates on the street with impunity granted by the state, the new set of criminal laws that seek to arm the state with more sweeping and draconian powers in the garb of 'decolonisation' of India's legal architecture, is all set to come into force from the first of July. If Modi 3.0 thus begins on this note of intensified fascist aggression, the opposition must make the fullest use of its increased strength to encircle and challenge the regime both inside Parliament and outside of it through intensified popular protests. It is the alertness and assertion of a united and awakened people that will defeat dictatorship and secure the ultimate victory of democracy.