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Reading the Indian Elections

In Bengal's lush yet labour-intensive tea gardens, the Lok Sabha elections were much more than a political event. For the Adivasi workers of the region, these elections came as a rare opportunity to express their simmering discontent and demand change.


As Nolina Minj writes, the daily struggles these workers endure overpowered the broader political discussions surrounding Kashmir or the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, becoming the deciding factor for voter choice and turnout. 


The story of Joy Praful Lakra, an emblematic figure in the Adivasi community, exemplifies this struggle. Born into a modest Kurukh Adivasi family in Alipurduar, Minj recounts Lakra's life journey from a sociology graduate to a community leader as a testament to the resilience and determination of his people. 


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Image: X / @narendramodi)

Lakra's activism is more than merely symbolic; it is a lifeline for the hardships of Adivasi workers. Lakra went on to found the All India Adivasi Liberation Front (AIALF), a collective advocating for Adivasi rights in the Dooars-Terai region. 


This region has seen significant industrial encroachments, resulting in the systemic marginalisation of the Adivasis. Under Lakra's leadership, the AIALF has become an important force, organising protests, demanding better governance, and striving for political representation.


The contemporary struggles of Adivasi workers are rooted in historical exploitation and systemic neglect. Minj highlights that they earn a meagre Rs 250 a day, enduring poverty since colonial times. A lack of political representation and industrial exploitation continues to perpetuate this cycle of poverty and marginalisation. 


Concurrently, in the parched regions of Gujarat, salt miners confront a starkly different yet equally challenging reality. Vaishnavi Rathore captures the story of a salt miner whose voting decision in the 2024 elections is driven by the precarious nature of his livelihood. For these miners, the polls are a pivotal moment that could determine their future.


Salt mining in Gujarat is a laborious and harsh occupation, passed down through generations. Despite the essential nature of their work, miners face significant struggles, particularly land insecurities, as they often work on land they don’t own and are thus subject to evictions and renewable energy projects, making their livelihoods uncertain. The efficiency of welfare schemes for these miners is also questionable, with many programs failing to reach them effectively. 


For them, the elections are not about larger political ideologies but survival and dignity. Their participation is a plea for recognition, a demand for their livelihoods to be secured and their contributions valued.


The Verdict 


The electoral verdict of Lok Sabha 2024, marked by an amalgamation of continuity and transition, mirrors the multifaceted forces shaping the electoral process in India. Despite Narendra Modi's popularity and the safety net comprising pro-government media, state institutions, robust financial networks, and an allegedly cooperative electoral commission, his party faced significant setbacks.


The loss of over sixty seats and its legislative majority, necessitated governance through coalitions with partners, some holding divergent views on state function. 


The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party's political strategies have often placed India under the scrutiny of observers concerned with democratic backsliding. However, the recent election results suggest a more nuanced political dynamic. Despite maintaining a similar vote share to the 2019 elections, the BJP's reduced seat count indicates a shift in the electorate's response. 


One of the BJP's key strategies this time around included leveraging its "new welfarism" approach, which has seen increased public distribution of essential goods and direct cash transfers to bolster its appeal among voters. However, the opposition hoped to capitalise on any potential decline in the BJP's performance, especially in states where it had near-total victories in previous elections​.


The BJP clinched a third consecutive term through the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), independently securing 240 seats in the Lok Sabha, well below the required margin of 272 needed for government formation. This victory comes with a significantly reduced majority in stark contrast to the mandate of the previous two elections (2014 and 2019), along with most exit polls predicting a similar success. 


This shift in voter sentiment reflects the reemergence of a more competitive political environment. The diminished majority, here, highlights a growing opposition force, particularly in the form of the ‘Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’ (or INDIA), led by the Indian National Congress (INC) which increased its seat count significantly, signalling a resurgence of diverse perspectives and accountability in policy-making.


Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav at a joint Congraess and Samajwadi Party rally for the INDIA alliance in Uttar Pradesh. (Image: X / @bharatjodo)
Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav at a joint Congraess and Samajwadi Party rally for the INDIA alliance in Uttar Pradesh. (Image: X / @bharatjodo)

The INDIA alliance is made up of regional parties with distinct political ideologies and voter bases. Key players include the INC, the Samajwadi Party (SP), West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Aam Aadmi Party, among others. Several of these parties have traditionally focused on social justice and the empowerment of backward castes and classes. 


These results, Issac Chotiner asserts, challenge the notion that the BJP’s brand of aggressive nationalism and Hindutva ideology was solely responsible for the BJP's previous successes. Historian Mukul Kesavan's remark that the electorate delivered "a setback for authoritarianism" without necessarily intending to do so is further indicative of the complexity of voter motivations. 


However, while there may be a growing weariness of the Hindu nationalist rhetoric, the stable, and in some areas increased, vote share for the BJP suggests that many voters still support Modi's broader political agenda.


State Dynamics


In the northern states, the BJP maintained a robust presence, but with notable differences from the 2019 elections. While the party retained significant support, there was a discernible shift towards regional parties, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. This shift indicates a growing local discontent with national policies. 


Key causes of this discontent included the controversial farm laws, which many farmers felt undermined their livelihoods, and the slow economic recovery post-pandemic. Despite this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity and his government's initiatives still resonated with a large segment of the population, preventing a more significant decline in the BJP's vote share.


The shock of BJP's loss in the Faizabad constituency in Uttar Pradesh, home to Ayodhya and newly constructed the Ram Temple, however, was significant, believed to be due to the forced relocation of locals, erasure of many small businesses, and such, in the effort to give the city a makeover.


A BJP rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in West Bengal.
A BJP rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in West Bengal. (Image: X / @narendramodi)

Regional parties— whether in UP, Maharashtra, or West Bengal —capitalised on local issues such as unemployment and inflation and effectively countered the BJP's development and national security narrative. 


The electorate in these states appeared to prioritise regional identity and governance over nationalistic rhetoric. However, the BJP's gains in northeastern states like Assam and Tripura indicated a regional strategy and increasing influence in traditionally non-BJP regions. 


The BJP's strategy of emphasising regional leaders and local governance issues in Assam and Tripura paid off, highlighting a revised approach to increasing the party’s influence in northeastern regions.


In the western states, the electoral landscape presented significant losses for the BJP. In Maharashtra, the INDIA alliance – including the Congress, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – won 30 of the state's 48 seats. The Congress alone secured 13 seats, while the BJP managed to win only nine. 


Political analyst Apoorvanand, in conversation with Al Jazeera, attributed the outcome to the BJP's "politics of humiliation," which created discontent among voters due to the way the party treated its allies and state leaders over the years. The BJP's efforts to fracture the Shiv Sena and NCP further alienated voters, resulting in substantial gains for the INDIA alliance.


The agrarian crisis and economic concerns also played a significant role here, with voters showing a preference for parties that promised tangible local solutions. Gujarat, however, remained a BJP stronghold, underscoring the party's continued appeal in Narendra Modi's home state despite emerging local challenges.


The southern states provided the most contrasting picture to the north. The NDA won a landslide victory in Andhra Pradesh with its key allies Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Pawan Kalyan’s JanaSena Party (JSP), securing 21 of 25 seats, leaving only 4 to the then incumbent YSRCP. 


West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee interacting with a crowd on the final day of the election campaign.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress head Mamata Banerjee interacting with a crowd on the final day of the election campaign. (Image: X / @AITCofficial)

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP increased its vote share crossing 10%, signalling a growing foothold, despite winning zero seats. In Karnataka, while the BJP emerged as the biggest winner, it saw a reduction from its 2019 performance, winning 17 out of 28 seats compared to 25 previously. 


Surprisingly, the BJP opened its account in the traditionally left-wing-dominated Kerala, securing one seat and witnessing a growing vote share standing at 16.67%. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) witnessed a landslide victory securing 18 seats of 20, while the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), managed to win only one. 


Congress and BJP won eight seats each of the total seventeen in Telangana, with the latter holding about a 5% greater vote share, taking away from the Bharat Rashtra Samithi’s vote share. However, the BJP's presence remained limited overall, highlighting the southern electorate's distinct political preferences and their emphasis on regional autonomy and local issues.


The BJP’s Persistent Rhetoric


Despite falling short of a majority, Anand Teltumbde argues that Modi's sustained vote share of 37.34%, down by only 0.03% from 37.37%, indicates a continuing, robust connection with a significant portion of the electorate. This connection, rooted in his image as an anti-elitist and nationalist leader, remains largely unaffected by his controversial rhetoric and governance style. 


The BJP's ability to maintain such a stable vote share suggests that Modi's appeal transcends immediate electoral setbacks, positioning him as a resilient political figure with the potential to regain a dominant position through strategic alliances and populist measures.  


The political dynamics within Modi's coalition government, Teltumbde adds, highlight the complexities of power-sharing and governance. Modi's reliance on coalition partners does not necessarily imply a dilution of his authoritarian tendencies. Instead, it may lead to a more calculated and strategic approach to governance, where Modi leverages the support of his allies to further his agenda. 


This could include intensified economic reforms favouring crony capitalism, increased marginalisation of minority groups, and a crackdown on dissent framed as anti-corruption measures, as Teltumbde puts forth. He further argues that coalition partners, motivated by power rather than democratic principles, are unlikely to challenge Modi's policies, thereby enabling a continuation of his autocratic governance style.  


The Campaigning Period


The Indian elections and campaigning this year have been marked by a notable increase in hate speech, particularly from leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 


For instance, during a campaign rally in Rajasthan in April 2024, Modi accused the Congress party of planning to redistribute wealth from Hindus to Muslims, referring to Muslims as "infiltrators" and "those with more children," a common dog whistle in Hindu nationalist discourse. This statement was met with widespread backlash, with opposition leaders and rights organisations condemning it as a blatant attempt to stoke communal tensions.


The rhetoric did not stop there. Among many others, JP Nadda, the BJP president, and Anurag Thakur, a BJP leader, echoed similar sentiments in their speeches. Nadda alleged that the Congress had a hidden agenda to take away Hindu property and give it to Muslims, while Thakur claimed that the Congress would distribute Hindu children's property to Muslims and dismantle the nation’s nuclear arsenal.


Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar announces the schedule for the 2024 General Elections at a press conference in New Delhi on March 16, 2024. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar announces the schedule for the 2024 General Elections at a press conference in New Delhi on March 16, 2024. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the severity of these statements, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has been criticised for its inaction. The ECI decided not to penalise top leaders from both the BJP and the Congress, claiming it was to maintain fairness. This decision has been viewed as a failure to hold political leaders accountable, thereby undermining the already debated integrity of the electoral process.


Trying to Vote


The elections have also been marred by widespread allegations of voter suppression, particularly targeting the Muslim minority. Instances of such suppression include the removal of Muslim names from electoral rolls, voter intimidation, and bureaucratic hurdles that prevent Muslims from voting, as reported by The Wire


In Assam, the redrawing of constituency boundaries, or delimitation, has significantly reduced the influence of Muslim voters in key areas, shifting them to constituencies where their votes are diluted​​.


In Uttar Pradesh's Sambhal district, there were reports of police brutality and threats against Muslim voters, leading to widespread disenfranchisement. Voters like Mustagir Qureshi reported being coerced into making false statements to deny voter suppression allegations​, as per a report by The Wire​. 


Similar tactics were observed in Gujarat, where Muslim fishermen were allegedly denied voter slips and removed from voter lists after their homes were demolished by the state government​​.


Concerns over the transparency of election campaigns within the Indian electoral system rose as polling began in April, where systematic exclusion and state-led voter suppression methods were shown to escalate. The lack of a proactive response from the Election Commission to address these allegations further compounded the distrust among minority voters​​.


Prime Minister Modi's decade-long economic policies have also notably benefitted key capitalists. These billionaires, often compared to America's "Gilded Age" magnates, are widely considered strong supporters of Modi, leading to criticism and scrutiny from political rivals.


Despite Modi's remarks on his ties with these billionaires drawing media attention, analysts like Abhinandan Sekhri of Newslaundry expect limited scrutiny. Major media outlets, owned by conglomerates like Gautam Adani's NDTV and Mukesh Ambani's Network 18, often avoid challenging crony capitalism due to their business interests. 


Additionally, accusations of illicit funding and collusion with these billionaires have been exchanged between Modi and his opponents, highlighting concerns about transparency in political funding in India. 


Earlier this year, the Supreme Court made a significant ruling on the often opaque nature of political funding, declaring the system of anonymous donations in the form of electoral bonds, introduced by the Modi government in 2017, as "unconstitutional." 


The electoral bonds system allowed individuals or groups to purchase bonds from the State Bank of India, the largest public sector bank, and donate them anonymously to political parties. Anti-corruption advocates have long argued that this system lacked transparency, enabling corporations to make large, undisclosed donations to political parties.


Rahul Gandhi, the newly appointed Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, addresses a rally in Karnataka during the Lok Sabha election campaign.
Rahul Gandhi, the newly appointed Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, addresses a rally in Karnataka during the Lok Sabha election campaign. (Image: X / @bharatjodo)

The 18th Lok Sabha


Notably, as the formation of the 18th Lok Sabha came to the forefront of discussions, the demographic and educational profile of members, as detailed by PRS Legislative Research, reveals a parliament characterised by a blend of seasoned politicians and fresh faces. 


Fifty-two per cent of the newly elected MPs are first-timers, signalling a significant influx of new perspectives into the legislative process, with the presence of 262 MPs with prior Lok Sabha experience. 


The demographic profile of the Lok Sabha indicates a slight decrease in the average age of MPs to 56 years, compared to 59 years in the previous Lok Sabha. A youthful segment is present, with 11% of MPs aged 40 years or younger, while a majority of 52% are over the age of 55. 


The oldest member is 82 years old, juxtaposed with three 25-year-old MPs, illustrating the age diversity. This demographic, while evolving, is still indicative of an older and less dynamic representation that presents a discord with the concentration of India's young population. 


Educationally, the 18th Lok Sabha is more well-endowed, with 78% of MPs holding at least an undergraduate degree. The proportion of MPs with higher education reflects a continuity from previous assemblies, with 5% possessing doctoral degrees. 


The professional backgrounds of the MPs are predominantly rooted in agriculture and social work, which align with India's socio-economic fabric. With this, 7% of MPs are lawyers, and 4% are medical practitioners.


MPs Mahua Moitra, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Dimple Yadav, Supriya Sule, Jothimani, Thamizhachi Thangapandian at the Parliament of India. (Image: X / @MahuaMoitra)
MPs Mahua Moitra, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Dimple Yadav, Supriya Sule, Jothimani, Thamizhachi Thangapandian at the Parliament of India. (Image: X / @MahuaMoitra)

Crucially, gender representation remains an issue, with women constituting only 14% of the Lok Sabha, at a marginal decline from the previous election cycle. This percentage highlights the ongoing challenge of achieving gender parity in Indian politics. 41% of these women have prior legislative experience. These figures are starkly contrasted by global benchmarks, such as South Africa's 46% female representation. 


The composition of Adivasi representation in the 18th Lok Sabha marks a notable development. Adivasi communities, traditionally underrepresented in mainstream politics, have seen an increase in their representation, reflecting a gradual recognition of their socio-economic and cultural concerns at the national level. 


The 18th Lok Sabha features MPs from diverse Adivasi communities across various states, such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and other northeastern states, where Adivasi populations are substantial.


They contribute to the pluralistic representation of India's cultural and ethnic diversity in the parliamentary discourse. Their presence in the 18th Lok Sabha is thus a critical step towards fostering inclusive governance and addressing the challenges faced by Adivasi populations in contemporary India.


The New Council of Ministers


The new Council of Ministers reflects a somewhat broad spectrum of India's social fabric, encompassing a variety of castes and communities. This includes representation from Dalits, OBCs, upper castes, tribal communities, and certain religious minorities. Among the 72 ministers, there are 10 Dalits, 27 OBC members, 21 from 'upper' castes, five from tribal communities, and five representing religious minorities.


The swearing-in ceremony of the new Council of Ministers with Prime Minister Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi.
The swearing-in ceremony of the new Council of Ministers with Prime Minister Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. (Image: X / @narendramodi)

However, a notable absence in this setup is that of Muslim ministers. For the first time, the new lineup does not feature a single Muslim minister, highlighting a significant gap in representation. This is particularly striking given the historical context where Muslim leaders have been part of the Union Council of Ministers in previous administrations. 


The Road Ahead


Focusing on the Prime Minister’s policies and agenda for the upcoming term, Sudhi Ranjan Sen et al. for Bloomberg provide a critical perspective on his economic policies, particularly his striking pro-big business stance. 


The assessment asserts that Modi's close ties with billionaire industrialists have led to policies favouring big businesses, often at the considerable expense of broader economic equity. This criticism resonates with large sections of the electorate who feel left out of India's economic growth patterns as a result of growing economic disparities and inequalities. 


The subsequent electoral results are also indicative of a demand for more inclusive economic policies that address the needs of all social strata. Economic disparity remains a critical issue requiring the government's attention. This critique of Modi's economic policies highlights the need for a more inclusive growth strategy. 


Sustainability also remains a critical issue despite the efforts made to reach the goals set by the Modi government, particularly as various developmental projects across the state have and continue to damage the environment.


Regional dynamics and the role of state parties are also crucial in understanding the 2024 Lok Sabha election and the fallout from the same. Parties recognized as state parties won 179 seats, highlighting their significant influence in shaping the national political landscape. 


Following the announcements of the results, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) unanimously resolved to ask Rahul Gandhi to become the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the 18th Lok Sabha. The CWC's resolution framed the recent electoral outcome as a personal and moral defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, criticising his campaign as divisive and based on bigotry. 


Marking a decisive shift in policymaking, allowing for greater democratic discussion, Rahul Gandhi assumed the LoP position— a role being filled after a decade as no single party met the conventional requirement of a single party strength equalling a tenth of the Lok Sabha.


“Modi’s aura was invincibility, that the BJP could not win elections without him…But the people of India didn’t give him a simple majority,” said Mahua Moitra, a member of parliament from West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress and one of the loudest dissenting voices in opposition today, speaking to The Guardian. “This election proved that the voter is still the ultimate king,” she added.


The election results signal a call for strengthening democratic institutions and practices. The significant number of first-time MPs and the reduced majority for the ruling party suggest a desire for greater accountability and transparency in governance. Building robust institutions that uphold democratic values and processes will be essential for the health of India's democracy. 


This includes ensuring the independence of the judiciary, protecting freedom of the press, and fostering a culture of political tolerance. Strengthening democratic institutions is crucial for safeguarding the rule of law and ensuring that the government remains accountable to the people.


The international implications of India's 2024 Lok Sabha elections are profound. As one of the world's largest democracies, India's political stability and policies have a significant impact on global geopolitics. 


The re-election of the NDA under Modi suggests continuity in India's foreign policy, which has increasingly aligned with Western powers while maintaining strategic autonomy. However, the nuanced message from the electorate suggests that India's foreign policy may also need to adapt to domestic demands for greater economic inclusivity and social harmony. 


Since the results, Modi has also publicly emphasised notions of consensus and positioning the Prime Minister's Office as “the people’s, not Modi’s.” However, as outlined, his cabinet appointments do little to support the claim. Thus, the impact of this coalition setup on Modi’s third-term agenda remains uncertain. Some argue it might restrain his policies, while others fear it could lead to even more divisive and oppressive actions.


Congress leader Rahul Gandhi holding a copy of the Indian Constitution. (Image: X / @RahulGandhi)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi holding a copy of the Indian Constitution. (Image: X / @RahulGandhi)

“Rather than go mild, he may actually go more aggressive on some things,” warned Yogendra Yadav, a prominent academic and activist. Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, emphasised the scale of Modi’s ambitions for his “legacy term.” 


Tellis noted, “Modi sees himself as a great transformer. He wants his legacy to be making India a genuine great power and a developed country by 2047. Equally important to him is establishing India as a majoritarian Hindu state, creating what he views as the ‘authentic’ India.”


As India moves forward, the focus must shift to fostering a political environment that prioritises the welfare of all citizens, addressing historical injustices, and ensuring that democracy remains robust and responsive.




 

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