Why Elections 2024 will be a nail-biter

It’s not just the results of the Lok Sabha elections, but also the aftermath that has the public apprehensive

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and MP Jairam Ramesh during a door-to-door campaign in Delhi (photo: Vipin/National Herald)
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and MP Jairam Ramesh during a door-to-door campaign in Delhi (photo: Vipin/National Herald)

Shravan Garg

Until recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seemingly unconcerned about the strong undercurrents of anti-incumbency against his government. He mocked and jeered the Opposition as a squabbling cabal of dynastic parties. No longer. The tone and tenor of his public speeches have undergone a transformation in recent weeks. Gone is the nonchalant air of invincibility. His attacks on the Opposition have got sharper, and the man in the crosshairs is — no prizes for guessing — Rahul Gandhi.

He tried first to claim the moral high ground, twisting Rahul Gandhi’s words out of shape. At the Shivaji Park rally of the INDIA bloc in Mumbai, Gandhi had spoken of the evil power (shakti) of Central investigative agencies, which sustain Modi’s authoritarian agenda.

Addressing meetings in Telangana and elsewhere, the prime minister feigned great disappointment: while he (Modi) worshipped nari shakti (woman power), he declaimed, Rahul Gandhi had insulted women, he had declared war on nari shakti. It rang false and fell flat — and the dramaturge in Modi knew he had to change his tune.

Next, he latched on to what Gandhi said at the ‘Loktantra Bachao’ (Save Democracy) rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. The country will go up in flames, Gandhi said, if the BJP won this election through manipulation and succeeded in making changes to the Constitution. This year’s general election is a battle, Gandhi said, to save the Constitution, because that is what unites a diverse India.

The prime minister waited 48 hours before launching his counter-attack from Uttarakhand. Addressing a rally in Rudrapur on 2 April, a snarling Modi accused Rahul Gandhi of planning to set the country on fire. He drew out from his repertoire words and phrases like shahi parivar (royal family) and shehzada (prince) to accuse him of threatening to burn the country down if the BJP returned to power for a third consecutive term.

In his provocative speech, he did his utmost to incite the crowd, asking if the people would allow the country to burn, before exhorting them to eliminate every trace of the “treacherous” party.

Significantly, his reaction was neither immediate nor spontaneous. The prime minister held his peace for nearly 48 hours before reacting to Gandhi’s address. It was an attack that was thought through, deliberately scheduled for delivery in Uttarakhand, on Devbhoomi, one of the laboratories of Hindutva. Modi must have been gratified to find the crowd in Rudrapur receptive, appearing as outraged as himself. But will the ploy work elsewhere?

Their joust of words suggests both Gandhi and Modi agree that India faces a threat to democracy; the disagreement is over the direction it emanates from. There is little doubt in anybody’s mind that the country is at a crossroads, that the BJP will do its utmost to remain in power. This prompts uneasy questions of whether the transition of power after the election can be smooth and uneventful even if the BJP is defeated.

Indeed, the current political discontent in the country is similar to that before the Emergency was imposed in 1975; the political discourse is reminiscent of the uncertainties that preceded and followed the Emergency. The current throttling of dissent is, however, widely perceived as being even more draconian than the Emergency of 1975. The capture of institutions by one party is complete. The public’s crisis of confidence in the political system and our institutions is unprecedented in the history of independent India.

A one-sided election in Russia was recently concluded with the inevitable return of President Vladimir Putin. The elections in India and the US are being avidly watched by the democratic world for similar patterns. In both countries, doubts are being voiced about the future of democracy if Donald Trump wins in November, if Narendra Modi returns to power in June.

Of course, Trump and Modi are ‘buddies’. Who can forget Narendra Modi rooting for Trump at a rally in Dallas in 2020, lustily cheering for his re-election? Despite his ‘ab ki baar Trump sarkar’ cheerleading, Trump lost — and is champing at the bit to avenge that defeat. If he loses again, he has warned, there will be a bloodbath, which explains why both Americans and Europeans are apprehensive.

In India, there is similar anxiety around the elections and their outcome. The Opposition, though often disparate in their values, are nevertheless putting up a spirited fight, training their guns on the same target. They may justifiably complain of receiving little attention from the media, little enough support from the judiciary against a rampaging government and its agencies.

Coercive action by the Central agencies — raids and intimidation, incarceration and financial crippling — have already destroyed the level playing field. And now the prime minister’s newfound aggression leads to further apprehensions — can it mean the certainty of an election unfree and unfair, or an Election Commission decidedly right of neutral, an impossibility of peaceful, democratic transfer of power? In the event of an electoral defeat, will the current ruling party be able (or willing) to restrain its unruly supporters?

The prime minister’s claim that the NDA shall secure 400-plus seats appears unrealistic on the face of it. No party in the NDA has offered a breakup of how and where these seats will be won. Some BJP leaders, like Anant Kumar Hegde in Karnataka, have explained the rationale: the BJP needs 400 seats in the Lok Sabha to change the Constitution and declare India a Hindu rashtra (nation). The BJP was quick to distance itself from that statement; Hegde, a candidacy hopeful, was unceremoniously dropped.

It is not just Rahul Gandhi who is talking about how the ‘match’ is fixed. While the Congress leader has lately questioned the integrity of the “EVM system” (comprising three electronic machines), the demand to improve safety and security of ballots has been gaining ground a while.

The Supreme Court has issued notice to the Election Commission to show cause why all VVPAT slips need not be counted and matched with EVM counts. The deadline to respond is 17 May; counting of votes is scheduled for 4 June.

What is also significant is the prime minister’s attack being focused only on Rahul Gandhi, while seemingly turning a blind eye to the massive discontent across the nation. He cannot be truly unaware of the large and enthusiastic crowds drawn by the Opposition, despite every possible effort to silence and weaken it, that point to a disenchanted electorate.

Will the people accept an electoral outcome that runs counter to the overwhelming sentiment on the ground, as did Bangladesh? What will it take to enforce such acceptance?

Bear in mind the 2024 election is crucial not only for the prime minister but also for the RSS and crony capitalists. Extremely powerful vested interests and corporate entities have equal stakes in maintaining the status quo.

And Narendra Modi is not the kind of leader who takes wins and losses in his stride, with a philosophical shrug, a ‘well, next time!’

He has, for over two decades, struck an emotional chord with the people about his modest background and nationalist credentials — and his refusal to brook any opposition. Can Rahul Gandhi stop this juggernaut?

Is that the real fear — and hope?

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