Return of the king? Or will empire strike back?

No matter who wins and what exit polls say, this was not a free or fair election, writes Aakar Patel

PM Modi ends his 'meditation' in Kanyakumari (photo: PTI)
PM Modi ends his 'meditation' in Kanyakumari (photo: PTI)

Aakar Patel

A painfully long election in our hottest summer has ended. The tea leaves will be read in the exit polls, but one must keep in mind their imperfect record. Even for a single state, West Bengal, which went to polls in 2021, one out of four got the result wrong. Opinion polls, conducted before this longest cycle of elections was announced, were unanimous that the BJP would get a majority.

Today, some are not sure this will be the case, but we shall see. Without knowing the results, however, what can be said about the election that is still important? Let us work our way through the possibilities.

The first is that no matter who wins, this was not a free or fair election. Two chief ministers were jailed before campaigning began. Jailed not because they were convicted but because the BJP wanted them jailed. One of them was released for a few days of campaigning, but will have to return to jail now.

Access to Opposition bank accounts was restricted, through attacks made by agencies controlled by the BJP. The Election Commission compromised itself, sadly, and allowed the BJP to control both the planning of the phases and their execution. The commission’s insolent replies to the Opposition, its refusal to act on the prime minister’s hate speeches against Muslims, and its refusal to release poll data on time has harmed democracy.

The electoral bonds scheme was determined to be unconstitutional, but thousands of crores raised under it were used in this election, and this has tainted it, irredeemably in my opinion.

Next, let’s look at the possibilities. Since the opinion polls were unanimous, the most likely one may be that Narendra Modi returns to office with a similarly large majority. What should one expect in that case? More of the same, of course. He has run the nation as one would a monarchy, and his ministers are courtiers (see their social media accounts bleating his glories).

The Opposition will continue to be attacked through misuse of agencies, civil society will be force-marched toward extinction, and India’s plummeting on global indices will continue. Minorities, especially Muslims, will continue to have open season declared on them. Institutions will continue their decline. The consolidation of what a former chief economic advisor has referred to as ’the two As’ will continue, meaning corporate capture of the economy. In short, what we see around us today will remain as it is.

It is unhealthy to have a single-party state, as has happened in Gujarat. The Opposition exists but only on sufferance. What happened to opponents and prospective candidates in Surat and in Varanasi will repeat in more places.

It should be conceded that if he wins again, Modi will be the most successful leader we have seen in our history, and delivering three consecutive Lok Sabha wins after three Vidhan Sabha wins, all with absolute majorities, will be a singular achievement.

The second possibility is that the BJP gets a plurality of seats but not a majority. Say they get 250 and form the government. In this case, the situation changes in several ways. First, the allies will begin to assert themselves, and it will no longer be possible for the king to ignore the courtiers. Does Modi have it in him to function in a more democratic manner? No. This will make such a government more volatile.

Within the party, there will be people wanting to assert themselves. The old men in Nagpur, always playing the long game, will raise their heads and become more visible.

Some of the things will shift, though the attack on minorities will continue because that happens at the state level, where in several places, the BJP enjoys a certain popularity because of its bigotry. The attack on federalism will recede. Today, India is federal only in name. States have no power to tax after GST, and the unhappiness of many has broken out into the open.

Law and order is a state subject, but from Delhi to Jharkhand to Karnataka to Bengal, the Union has sent out its agencies to undermine state governments and chief ministers. With the Union government as strong and unwilling to change as it has been, there has been no attempt at redressal. An alliance government will likely alter that and this will be good for our country.

The last possibility is, of course, that the BJP loses. On the evidence of the opinion polls, this is least likely, but still a possibility we have to consider. To my mind, this will be a good outcome, and not entirely because of personal preferences.

Democracy renews and refreshes itself with changes in government. One man presiding for decades — take Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un — rarely produces anything positive. Some of the things, many of them in fact, that we have taken on since 2014 need to be gotten rid of. It is true that our democracy gives us the option of countering them in other ways, for instance through the courts or protest. But elections are the only way in which changes take place structurally.

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