2024 election will prove a turning point in the history of Indian democracy

With two more phases of this protracted election remaining, we see the PM's expectations of a sweeping victory are water under the bridge.

ByK M Chandrasekhar

Published May 20, 2024 | 2:05 PMUpdatedMay 21, 2024 | 11:35 AM

Voting in 2024 (iStock).

Recently, at a meeting with some very bright and experienced journalists, I was asked, “Do you see a parallel between the current and 2004 elections?” That set me thinking.

Indeed, there are some similarities and some differences. The most striking similarity is that opinion polls uniformly predicted a comeback for the NDA in both elections. While 250 seats were expected for the NDA in August 2002, this increased to 335 in January 2004.

The UPA share, however, remained at the 100 to 120 level throughout this period. The exit polls reflected the same expectation, between 250 and 275 for NDA, but the UPA scores had increased considerably.

When the results came, it was 218 for UPA and 181 for NDA, with others, primarily the Left parties, notching 143. The UPA managed to cobble together a coalition, strengthening its position in 2009 and lasting ten years.

For the 2024 election, opinion polls projected a 46 percent vote share for NDA, with the remaining 54 percent shared equally by the INDI alliance and Others.

Related: Congress disrespected Ram, Modi claims

Vajpayee, Modi clearly recognized NDA leaders

There were some other common factors. The NDA government’s “India Shining” campaign in 2003 and 2004 was very similar to the enormous Modi-centric publicity blitz that started during the pandemic, reached its zenith during the G-20 festival, and continued with the PM inaugurating the Ayodhya temple and personally leading the Hindutva wave that followed.

The other common factor is that, as of 2024, NDA has a clear leader in Modi. In 2004, the Vikas Purush, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was the clear leader, with the Loh Purush, LK Advani, backing him. The UPA had no clear leader, although the Gandhis were visible throughout the election campaign. Who would have thought Manmohan Singh would be the PM and that he would shepherd the UPA to another five-year term in 2009?

Another similarity was the NDA’s change of focus in campaigning. In 2004, the NDA realised that “India Shining” was not carrying conviction and changed its emphasis to stability. We hear of this even now as NDA campaigners point to a lack of clearly defined leadership on the other side.

Also read: Modi has Hindu-Muslim agenda, says Congress

‘Viksit Bharat’ to jailing Opposition leaders

Likewise, the NDA seems to have changed its strategy this year. They started with the “Viksit Bharat” concept to rake in the votes for them. Finding that this did not greatly enthuse the voters, they shifted first to hard-core Hindutva, followed by accusations of corruption against all and sundry in opposition parties, using the CBI, ED and the NIA against them and even incarcerating Chief Ministers.

Arvind Kejriwal was identified as the most aggressive opponent and was put in jail on the cusp of the elections without explaining his role in the so-called liquor case to the people. This action came on the back of progressively diluting the role of the State government and making the LG the supreme authority in the state, ignoring the fact that the people had resoundingly voted for the AAP in two successive elections.

The differences, too, are many. The present election came on the back of strong action against opposition parties, leaders and opposition-ruled states. The ruling party, led by the PM, has openly expressed its contempt for the opposition during its governance and later during the campaign. The people in opposition-ruled states have been told explicitly that they will be discriminated against.

Speaking in Odisha this month, the PM said, “This election holds immense significance for the people of Odisha. Your every vote is crucial for the development of Odisha and a prosperous India. Your single vote will enable a BJP government, bringing a double-engine government to Odisha for the first time!”. He also accused the hugely popular Navin Patnaik and his government of looting the state.

Also read: ‘Confirm special status for Andhra’

Flaying the States, and electoral bonds row

Narendra Modi talked of “double engine governments” in Andhra Pradesh. He accused the YSRCP government of unleashing a reign of sand and land mafia, rowdyism and hooliganism in the last five years. The Telangana and Tamil Nadu governments were also accused of corruption. Modi held out the veiled threat of discrimination against them if the people did not sensibly vote for a “double engine government.”

Modi’s speeches, which have always been Modi-oriented, have now become rather staid and monotonous. Credibility is also lower, particularly in the light of the Supreme Court judgment on corporate electoral bonds, which moved the needle of suspicion squarely towards the ruling front.

In Para 210 of the judgment, the SC makes its view clear. “The purpose of Section 182 is to curb corruption in political financing….The amendment to Section 182 by permitting unlimited corporate contributions( including by shell companies) authorised unrestrained influence of companies on the electoral process.” The frequent pressures on legislators to topple elected governments also created a sense of extreme disquiet among voters.

The distrust of government also extends to Constitutional authorities manned by Government nominees, particularly the Election Commission. There is a growing feeling that the Election Commission is partial to the interests of the ruling parties. Since the members of the Commission are retired civil servants, I hope that, at the end of the process, the Commission will have firmly established its credibility.

Related: Pinarayi says no media freedom in NDA rule

Mistrust of mainstream media

The same mistrust is felt about mainstream media, which are perceived as having been purchased by corporate interests close to the ruling parties. Many such media have eased out independent journalists during the past few years. They now operate through YouTube and social media, and people increasingly turn to them for unbiased news. The gyrations of the stock market and the predictions of the Phalodi satta bazaar are also exciting indicators of election trends.

Thus, many factors are in play in the 2024 elections. Undoubtedly, this election will prove to be a turning point in the history of Indian democracy. Just a couple of months ago, it was expected that the ruling front had decisively won the race. With two more phases of this protracted election remaining, we see that its outcome is still uncertain and that the PM’s expectations of a sweeping victory are water under the bridge.

How far the pendulum will shift is yet to be seen. Ultimately, the decision is with the voter, who is no fool. He wants a government that will work for him without instilling fear in him. Alan Moore said, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

(KM Chandrasekhar is a former Union Cabinet Secretary. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)