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Election 2024

Reclaiming Democratic Space

T Navin

The two consecutive terms of the NDA from 2014 to 2024 marked a significant deviation in India’s political history. Earlier phases celebrated core Indian values such as respecting diversity and secularism, as well as constitutional principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, federalism, citizen rights, and directive principles of state policy. However, during this period, an ‘electoral autocracy’ emerged under the guise of a people’s mandate. Citizens were reduced to passive subjects, expected to display ‘nationalism’ by abandoning their ability to think, reflect, and question. Vigilant citizens were feared, and those seeking justice were imprisoned. Nationalism was equated with blind devotion, parochialism, and polarisation along religious, caste, linguistic, and ethnic lines. Opposition and dissent were not tolerated. The media, instead of being the fourth pillar of democracy, became a propaganda machine for the government. Democratic debates and parliamentary discussions were viewed not as essential aspects of parliamentary democracy but as obstacles to the ruling regime’s anti-people and divisive agendas. Federalism was not respected.

In mainstreaming divisive and anti-egalitarian agendas and anti-federal values, the Constitution itself was seen as an obstacle. The Prime Minister and many BJP leaders openly declared their intention to cross 400 seats to change the constitution. However, the electoral outcome did not align with BJP’s expectations. The people delivered a verdict where the BJP significantly fell short of the majority mark.

Despite the NDA’s victory in the 2024 elections, it is a win for the forces defending the Constitution of India and its multicultural and diverse character. One of the BJP’s agendas was to do away with the constitution once it secured a large majority and to declare India a Hindu Rashtra in 2025, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the RSS. Being reduced to 240 seats, far behind the majority mark of 272, signifies a rejection of polarising and hate politics, the Prime Minister’s dictatorial functioning, the arrogance of power, and the misuse of institutions to target opposition and dissent. It represents a reclaiming of spaces that were taken away. This result came despite the BJP’s control over the Election Commission, electoral processes, media, institutions, and investigative agencies used to target opposition and dissenting voices. Unlike its previous terms in 2014 and 2019, where it pushed its agendas without heeding even its own NDA partners, let alone the opposition and people’s voices, the reduced size and dependence on coalition partners necessitate a more consultative and democratic approach.

The electoral verdict is a victory for the people—represented by independent voices such as activists, intellectuals, writers, poets, cultural artists, stand-up comedians, YouTubers, alternative media, and civil society representatives. They played a crucial role in fighting back, questioning power, and bringing people’s issues to the forefront. The opposition INDIA block put up a spirited fight that yielded positive results despite falling short of a majority. Core issues of the people, such as unemployment, price rise, and citizens’ rights, came to the forefront. Movements like Bharat JodoYatra and Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, along with the emergence of civil society formations at the state and central levels, brought people’s issues to the fore. The 2024 elections succeeded in pushing back against anti-constitutional forces.

On the eve of the election campaign, the Prime Minister resorted to hate politics, using divisive rhetoric with words like ‘Mughals,’ ‘Muslims,’ ‘Mutton,’ ‘Machli,’ and ‘Mangal Sutra.’ Minorities were labelled as ‘infiltrators’ and accused of being ‘producers of many children.’ The electoral outcome was a clear rejection of such divisive and polarizing politics. It was a strong condemnation of hate speech that incites hatred and violence. This rejection was evident in key constituencies: the constituency at the centre of the Ayodhya movement and Ram temple construction voted against the BJP, and in Banswara, where the Prime Minister delivered his hate speech, the BJP was defeated. Uttar Pradesh which was the centre of Mandir politics saw a rejection of BJP.

The reduction of the BJP’s parliamentary strength to 240 seats from its previous majorities in 2014 and 2019 indicates a significant shift. This outcome reflects the electorate’s demand for a more democratic and consultative approach to governance. The voters have emphasized the need for greater respect for democratic processes, advocating for wider engagement with coalition partners, the opposition, and the public. They seek stronger checks and balances to curb autocratic tendencies by enhancing parliamentary debates and promoting transparency. Additionally, there is a clear call for the restoration of the independence of key institutions such as the Election Commission, the Judiciary, and investigative agencies.

During this period, citizens advocating for people’s rights and social justice faced severe repercussions, with many imprisoned and dissenting voices defamed in an attempt to crush opposition. However, this suppression led to a revival of active citizen vigilance. Independent voices, including activists, intellectuals, writers, cultural artists, and alternative media, played a crucial role in challenging the status quo. They effectively countered dominant propaganda and highlighted a reality centered on the people’s concerns. This renewed civic engagement was evident in movements such as the anti-farmers bill protests and the anti-CAA demonstrations. Civil society’s organising efforts before the elections further showcased an alternative reality, energising the citizenry and presenting a powerful counter-narrative to the government’s agenda.

The verdict underscores a collective commitment to defending the Constitution and its core principles. These core values of the Indian constitution include justice, encompassing social, economic, and political equality; liberty, including freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship; and equality, ensuring equal opportunity and status before the law. These values are further upheld by the principles of fraternity, secularism, and respect for diversity, fostering unity and integrity among all citizens while celebrating the nation’s rich pluralism. This reaffirmation suggests the protection of fundamental rights ensuring rights of freedom of speech, assembly, and practice of religion is safeguarded. It calls for a return of the rule of law where there is fair and impartial application of laws, rejecting the misuse of law.

Despite not achieving a majority, the opposition’s spirited fight has been pivotal. In a challenging environment where media access was restricted, and harassment by investigative agencies through IT and ED raids was rampant, and accounts were frozen, their resilience stood out. This resilience was characterised by strategic alliances, notably the INDIA coalition, which successfully counterbalanced the dominant BJP’s influence. Social coalitions were also formed, focusing on the poorest and most marginalised communities, including SCs, STs, OBCs, and minorities. Despite political differences, these alliances demonstrated a unified effort to uphold democratic values and challenge the status quo.

The 2024 election results reflect a comprehensive pushback against autocratic governance and a collective effort to restore democratic principles, citizen vigilance, and constitutional values while rejecting divisive politics and showcasing the resilience of democratic forces. While BJP has been pushed back, there is still a long way to go. The Hindutva fascist ideas of the BJP still have an ideological influence and need to be fought at the level of ideology, polity, cultural, social, political, and psychological spheres.

[T Navin is an independent writer. The article was first published in countercutrrents.org]

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Frontier
Vol 56, No. 52, Jun 23 - 29, 2024