India sends Modi a message

  • Themes: India

The 2024 Indian election has delivered a shock result, depriving Narendra Modi's seemingly invincible BJP of an expected majority. The prime minister will now have to temper some of his bolder ambitions for India's future.

Supporters of the Samajwadi Party and Indian National Congress shout slogans and wave flags at an election rally, May 2024. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Supporters of the Samajwadi Party and Indian National Congress party shout slogans and wave flags at an election rally, May 2024. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The 2024 Indian election was a David and Goliath contest. On one side, a seemingly invincible Prime Minister Modi: the BJP party’s campaign message and promises were personalised as ‘Modi’s guarantees’. Facing Modi was the humble Indian voter. David gave Goliath a bloody nose. Hubristic predictions of 400 BJP seats, a super-majority mandate to change the secular constitution, and premature announcements of what would be done in the first 100 days, came to nought as the BJP won only 240 seats, 32 short of a majority, while Rahul Gandhi’s INDIA alliance won 234. Modi may still be prime minister, but forced into a coalition with erstwhile opponents, the sense of inevitability around him has been decisively punctured.

Observers may be baffled by how this happened. Hadn’t the headlines long been telling us that India’s economy had grown to be among the top five in the world, that roads and other infrastructure had improved, and that India’s impressive digital platforms allowed the smooth delivery of welfare benefits? Surely such a record deserved to be rewarded not punished.

Behind the headlines, the reality of India is rather grittier. The top one per cent of the population owns 40 per cent of the wealth and nine out of ten Indians earn less than the national average of $2800 per year; a third of children under five are malnourished; 800 million people rely on food rations to simply survive.

The expansive highways weren’t built for their rickety bicycles. Bullet trains are promised but current trains are more expensive than before and suffocatingly overcrowded. The glamour of Modi’s India, loved by his admirers and visiting diaspora (so patriotic they tend to say ‘you don’t feel like you are in India’), is not the everyday reality of most Indians and this election was a chance for them to express their opinion on that reality. And they took it.

We shouldn’t perhaps have been quite so surprised. Seventy-five years of Indian democracy have witnessed numerous elections, social movements and hard-won rights. Indian independence from British colonial rule was built on mass civil disobedience and that tradition of resistance to overweening power runs deep. Just before the pandemic, a group of Muslim women staged a non-violent sit-in against an unconstitutional citizenship act for over three months during Delhi’s bitter winter, drawing supporters from afar. Then farmers peacefully blockaded the highways around the national capital for over a year (two thirds of India’s population are rural), forcing the government to backtrack on laws they had forced through without consultation. The Indian electorate, no matter how poor, knows its rights and has been unafraid to fight for them. It recognises that constitutional morality, accountability and transparency are important democratic values, and that cronyism and hubris are not. They felt this Goliath needed to be cut down to size – metaphorically of course, for Indian voters deeply value elections precisely for facilitating non-violent shifts in power.

Indian voters are enthusiastic participants in elections and turnout has risen over the years, unlike in the West. Why? In India, voting has developed into something of a sacred duty, to which many ordinary people feel an inviolate commitment. Until recently, the Election Commission of India was the most respected public institution, elections were mostly free and fair contests and it cost no one anything to exercise their fundamental right to make their voice heard. Poorer citizens vote in large numbers because the polling booth is the only space and moment in the country where briefly they can experience genuine political equality and social mixing, where caste and rank cannot allow queue jumping, with each voter is treated the same by officials and each vote has equal worth. No matter how poor, Indians are recognised as full members of the country, as citizens. In a country of deep social inequality, to miss out on the experience of such dignity is treated with a sense of personal loss. I have encountered many voters who would have been inconsolable if they had been unable to vote and could not brandish the coveted stigmata of the inked finger as a symbol of their participation.

In 2024, there was an additional factor. The elections themselves were not wholly fair. The Election Commission looked less and less credible; there were reports of voters from minority communities being suppressed. After seven decades, there exists in India a collective understanding of what a fair, well-conducted election should look like – and this one failed to match that standard on several counts. But for those who could vote it was vital, despite an extreme heatwave, to send a message through the ballot. The electorate has burst Modi’s bubble, and diminished his authority. He will be forced to negotiate, deliberate, build consensus and learn some humility – i.e., he will be forced to practise some basic democratic values. The voters will go back to being citizens and renew their cultivation of their own democratic practice, remaining vigilant, building courage, and hoping for the future.


Mukulika Banerjee