Third time’s [not]the charm?

Hussain H Zaidi
Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

Although it couldn’t prevent Narendra Modi from winning a third back-to-back term, the opposition in India has done a creditable job by cutting him down to size. The man who deserves credit for springing up this electoral shock is undoubtedly Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

As widely predicted, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party in the recently concluded Indian elections, winning 240 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. However, contrary to most predictions, it fell well-short of not only a simple majority of 272 but even more of its previous electoral tally of 303 as well (in 2019).

The downswing in the BJP’s fortunes is accompanied by an upswing in that of the Congress, bagging 99 seats compared with 52 that it won in 2019, which had marked the grand old party’s second worst-ever electoral performance after the 2014 debacle when it could win only 44 seats.

The BJP secured 36.5 per cent of the total votes cast down from 37.8 per cent in 2019. The Congress improved its voting share from 19.7 to 21.2 per cent.

Other major players include the Uttar Pradesh (UP)-based Samajwadi Party (SP) and the West Bengal-based All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), currently at the helm in the state, returning from 37 (compared with five in 2019) and 29 (compared with 22 in 2019) constituencies respectively.

Being India’s most populous state, UP has the largest number of seats (80) in the Lok Sabha and historically has tipped the scales in electoral outcomes. Both Modi and Gandhi successfully contested from the state. West Bengal is ranked fourth among the states in terms of population (42 Lok Sabha seats) and historically is marked out for leading political resistance against the powerful.

Both the SP and the AITC, as well as the Congress, are part of the multiparty Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), formed in 2023 to challenge the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the ensuing elections.

Overall, the NDA secured 293 seats (42.5 per cent of the total votes cast) down from 351 it held previously, whereas INDIA won in 234 constituencies (40.6 per cent of the votes). Neither the NDA nor INDIA contested the polls under a common symbol, as in both cases the constituent parties fielded candidates independently with seat adjustments.

State wise, the BJP swept the polls in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat (Modi’s home state), Odisha, Assam and New Delhi (union territory). Although the party won more seats from UP (33) than from any other state, it was pipped by the SP.

In Punjab and Tamil Nadu, it failed to secure a single seat. In all, compared with 2019, in 2024 the BJP lost 29 seats in UP, 14 in Maharashtra, 10 in Rajasthan, six in West Bengal, five each in Bihar and Haryana, three in Jharkhand, and two in Punjab. Thus, it is in the Hindi-speaking belt (UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, etc), which has been the BJP’s power base over the years, that it has suffered reversals. How can we account for the ruling party’s below par performance?

The Indian economy is undoubtedly the headline contributor. Modi has presided over fast economic growth. Between 2014 and 2018, the economy grew on average 7.4 per cent a year, while for the period 2019-2023, the average annual growth slowed down to 4.4 per cent mainly due to Covid-induced 5.8 per cent economic contraction in 2020.

India is at present the world’s fifth-largest economy and, at current growth rates, is poised to overtake Germany and Japan in a matter of years to become the third largest, only behind the US and China.

At the same time, the BJP’s pro-rich economic policies have put India on course to becoming an oligopoly (to many an Ambani-Adani duopoly). Not only have they benefited mega-industrial houses at the expense of small and medium enterprises, they have neglected the agricultural sector as well in a predominantly rural nation. Having forced the Modi government into repealing the three ‘anti-farmer’ laws in 2021, farmers were back on the roads earlier this year, seeking legally mandatory purchase prices for all crops.

Not surprisingly, international organizations frequently point to India as a textbook example of a highly skewed income distribution. According to the Global Wealth Report, 2023, a publication of Switzerland-based Credit Suisse, the top 1.0 per cent in India, which make up only 0.07 per cent of the total adult population, accounted for 41 per cent of the total national wealth in 2022, up from 40.5 and 40.6 per cent respectively in 2020 and 2021.

By this standard, India has the second highest – only behind Brazil – wealth inequality among the major economies. India’s Gini Index, a widely used measure of income or wealth inequality, was 82.6 per cent, up from 82.2 per cent in 2020 and 82.3 per cent in 2021, which is among the highest in the world. At the other end of the scale, 78 per cent of the adult population in India has wealth below $10,000.

The growing economic disparities were a stick with which the opposition beat the ruling party in the run-up to the elections. It was partly against the ‘trickle-down’ policies that Rahul Gandhi organized his ‘Bharat Joro Yatra’ (Unite India March) from September 2022 to January 2023. In both cases, the opposition questioned the utility of rapid economic growth if it benefited only a small section of society at the expense of the vast majority.

Since its establishment, the BJP has thrived on the Hindutva narrative: that India must be a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values with total domination of the majority community. The rise of the BJP and the eclipse of the Congress has set the stage for Hindutva to replace secularism as the dominant ethos of the Indian polity. In Modi, the party has a leader who is a picture-perfect personification of its Hindutva narrative and all it signifies.

He has made Indians believe, the way none before him could, that for centuries Hindus despite being in a veritable majority have been humiliated in their homeland and that now it is time to turn the tide. During the 2024 election campaign, Modi and his leaders made it a point to whip up the anti-Muslim sentiments.

It will be premature to infer from the emaciation of the BJP that the electorate has rejected its divisive or identity politics. It seems that the core BJP supporters have remained loyal to the party, otherwise it wouldn’t have returned as the single largest party. At any rate, Hindutva is so deeply rooted in Indian polity that it will take decades to uproot it.

In South Asian politics, men (and women) are as important as measures. Thus finally, we come to the man who more than anyone else made a divided opposition and its supporters believe that Modi is not invincible. Rahul Gandhi’s ‘yatra’, during which he travelled more than 4,000km across the country on foot, did much to set the stage for making a common cause against the BJP’s divisive politics and growing economic inequalities. Not only that, it also served to bolster his image, whom his rivals would derisively brand as a ‘shahzada’ (a prince) and ‘pappu’ (callow), who was no match for an austere and hardy Modi. It also sent out the message that despite its back-to-back electoral reversals, India’s grand old party was still politically relevant. The yatra thus gave the Congress and the rest of the opposition a new narrative, which in the end they employed successfully.

Having humbled Modi, the new, and more uphill task, for Gandhi will be to keep the opposition – which represents a hotchpotch of political and ethnic interests – united. India is a country where coalitions and alliances are not particularly known for their longevity, especially when the other side has both state support and bags full of money backed by a loyal and vociferous, if not yobbish, corporate media.

In any event, Gandhi has established himself as one who upheld the cause of secularism and equality in one of the most ethnically diverse countries and largest economies in the world.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets/posts @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: