Mandate shows limits of strongman politics - Hindustan Times

Mandate shows limits of strongman politics

Jun 13, 2024 09:23 PM IST

The key to the next political act lies not so much with the BJP’s allies, but with the Opposition that has been hugely boosted by the mandate

One of the great joys of watching a blockbuster movie is the intermission which often comes just when the plot is reaching a dramatic crescendo. It is during the interval that you can step out from the darkness into a calmer space for a quick break. Indian electoral politics, too, has entered a much-needed interval phase after a bruisingly polarised decade marked by constant action and high-octane theatrics. Ever since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister (PM) in 2014, the news cycle has been on steroids. Now, finally, a fatigued voter has pressed the pause button without a total switch-off.

TOPSHOT - India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2L) flashes victory sign as he arrives at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to celebrate the party’s win in country's general election, in New Delhi on June 4, 2024. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP) (AFP) PREMIUM
TOPSHOT - India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2L) flashes victory sign as he arrives at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to celebrate the party’s win in country's general election, in New Delhi on June 4, 2024. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP) (AFP)

Which is why it would be a huge mistake to overread the 2024 verdict. The Modi fan club reminds us that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 240 seats are still higher than any Congress performance in the last 30 years. The Modi baiter club tells you that this is a mandate against the incumbent: A government that boasted of being “char sau par” (400 plus) is well below the halfway 272 mark on its own. The truth, as often is the case, lies somewhere in between.

The BJP’s victory rath triumphally marching from one state to another has undoubtedly been halted. In the country’s three biggest electoral states — Uttar Pradesh (UP), Maharashtra and West Bengal — the party has ended second best. Amidst the recrimination over what went wrong, the reality is that a seemingly supreme election machine is no longer invincible. The aura around PM Modi has somewhat dimmed too: A Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) post-poll survey actually puts Rahul Gandhi above Modi in UP on the leadership question, the first time he has edged ahead in a major Hindi heartland state in a decade.

And yet, the Congress itself remains well behind the BJP nationwide in seats and vote share. In direct BJP versus Congress fights, the gap in seats won remains in favour of the BJP: 157 against 51 wins. The only state the Congress dominated was Kerala, where its principal opponent was the Left, not the BJP. In the Congress-ruled states of Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh, the party was unable to push ahead.

But electoral arithmetic tells only part of the 2024 story. This election was driven by chemistry, by an unshaken belief that “Modi ki Guarantee” alone would be enough to give the BJP a decisive victory. This is where the BJP campaign managers erred, forgetting that in a country as diverse as India, no one issue can be bigger than its people. That over 100 BJP candidates were imports from other parties and 132 sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) were replaced suggests an overconfident political strategy that revolved around the “one leader, one nation” chorus in which all other candidates were rendered faceless and dispensable.

This Modi-centric polity has now reached exhaustion point. Three results stand out: Varanasi, where the BJP was talking up the possibility of the PM winning by a record margin, saw a 320,000 drop in the victory count; Faizabad-Ayodhya where the Ram Mandir opening in January was billed as the ultimate Hindutva moment witnessed a fresh-faced leader from a Dalit community defeat a two-time MP; and Banswara in Rajasthan, where the PM first made the elections about identity saw a young tribal leader from the Bharat Adivasi Party emerge triumphant.

Collectively, these results and the overall splintered verdict expose the limits of strongman politics in which institutions and ideology, even religion and society, were subsumed under the looming presence of a king-size persona laced with divinity. Instead, voters have reminded us that they need greater accountability, and yes, more humility from the political leadership.

But while the domineering personality cult has lost some of its regal splendour, Modi remains in power even if his political authority may be diminished. The Modi era isn’t over, it has simply been forced by a disenchanted voter to soften a bit. This may be a mili-juli sarkar but unlike previous coalition arrangements, it has a strong party at its core: The BJP actually got 6.9 million votes more than it did in 2019 but lost 63 seats. The unilateral style of decision-making may give way to a more accommodative way of functioning. But for how long is still a moot question.

In a sense, the key to the next political act lies not so much with the BJP’s allies, most of whom are relishing the scent of power, but with the Opposition that has been hugely boosted by the mandate. After being battered into submission for 10 years — its parties were broken, leaders hounded and even jailed, and Parliament was often reduced to a notice-board — the Opposition has finally got the numbers, and crucially, a voice that matters. The wise voter just doesn’t want a humbler government, she is also pushing for a robust Opposition that will take up citizens’ concerns with greater vigour while being constructive, not chaotic.

The length of this intermission phase in Indian politics is unclear and could well depend on the next round of assembly election results. But what is more certain is that the Indian voter has chosen consensus over conflict, modesty over arrogance, federalism over a unitary State, diversity over uniformity. Embracing this extraordinary verdict requires sagacity on all sides. Or else, the increasingly impatient voter may be forced to speak out again: The second half of an indeterminate political plot is yet to unfold.

Post-script: In the spirit of humility, some of us in the media, too, need to apologise for pitching the exit poll as an “exact” poll. We too need to take time off and rediscover a better way to tell the election story, less driven by sensationalist claims of know-it-all pollsters and more by the common sense of voters.

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

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