An earthquake in 2024, as it was in 1977

Much like in 1977, it were the rural, the marginalised and the unemployed who decided it was time to say ‘no more’, in 2024

Updated - June 13, 2024 09:34 am IST

Published - June 13, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘If the voter in 1977 rejected a constitutionally imposed authoritarianism, she has, in 2024, wounded the unconstitutionally imposed authoritarianism of Narendra Modi’

‘If the voter in 1977 rejected a constitutionally imposed authoritarianism, she has, in 2024, wounded the unconstitutionally imposed authoritarianism of Narendra Modi’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In a demonstration of the power of the vote, India’s voters have collectively achieved in 2024 what their parents and grandparents did in 1977, when Indira Gandhi was defeated at the polls after a 21-month spell of a National Emergency.

Much like in 1977, it was not the urban voter or the educated or the middle-class who brought the mighty down to earth. It were the rural, the marginalised and the unemployed who had been sold illusions for a decade and decided it was time to say, “No more”.

True, there are regional variations in the outcome: the triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in new areas (Odisha), consolidation in old ones (Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh), and an increase in vote share in a couple of States (Tamil Nadu and Kerala). The big picture is what matters, and the story there is of an outcome that has shattered the myth of invincibility of the Modi persona. There were regional variations at the end of the Emergency too — Indira Gandhi was routed in the north, east and west; the Congress held its own in the south. The big picture at that time was a defeat of the Congress.

The WhatsApp University will pour scorn on such a comparison saying (not argue, for it does not know how to argue) that unlike Indira Gandhi in 1977, Narendra Modi remains in office and has begun a third term as Prime Minister.

Let us just step back and recognise what has indeed happened.

From rejection then to a wounding now

If the voter in 1977 rejected a constitutionally imposed authoritarianism, she has, in 2024, wounded the unconstitutionally imposed authoritarianism of Narendra Modi. If in 1977, India’s voters refused to buy Indira Gandhi’s 20-point economic programme, they have now refused to buy into “Modi’s guarantees”. If in 1977, they refused to be bought over by the slogan, the “Trains are running on time”, in 2024, they have refused to mistake the Vande Bharats for the overcrowded and neglected general railway trains.

There is only one reason why the electorate was not able to evict the BJP from office in 2024: it had to exercise its vote in a battlefield in which everything was loaded against it; it had to fight a war machine that was arguably much more powerful than Indira Gandhi’s in 1977.

During the Emergency, there were arbitrary arrests of political opponents; the media was supine, the courts with rare exceptions had surrendered, the bureaucracy shuddered in fear, and businesses curried favour with the government. The very air smelt of fear. The middle class of course loved that authoritarianism for the discipline it imposed.

This describes perfectly the atmosphere of authoritarianism that has enveloped India in recent years and the support it has enjoyed among the middle-classes. One can argue until the cows come home about the finer differences between the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi and that of Narendra Modi, the differences as they exist point to a greater and more frightening force in recent years. During the Emergency there was obedience born out of fear; in the recent past, all institutions of the Union Government — constitutional bodies, the courts, the media, police and the bureaucracy — embraced the political directions they received. They all believed they were doing the right thing in marching to the orders of the Modi government and its political apparatus.

The electoral setting

In 1977, elections were held even while the Emergency was formally still in place. Yet, ahead of the elections, Opposition leaders were released from jail, the press found its voice when restrictions were lifted and the Election Commission of India showed a measure of independence when it conducted the Lok Sabha elections after a gap of six years. You could not call the 1977 elections entirely ‘fair”, but the Opposition and the voter knew they could make it a fighting contest.

This has not been so in 2024. It bears repeating that ahead of the polls, we saw leaders of the Opposition thrown into jail, vulnerable politicians threatened and cajoled to switch sides and the bank accounts of the main Opposition party were coincidentally initially frozen. The media, with a few exceptions, continued with its fawning behaviour, further building up the BJP and spreading the “Abki Baar 400 Paar” slogan. If the media questioned anything, it was of the Opposition; the anchors, who had sold their souls, sought to build up an image of an invincible emperor who was to be crowned for life. And the Election Commission was essentially silent when the most vicious of campaigns ever was unleashed by the BJP, targeting the Muslim community.

Yet, the voter this year, just as close to half a century ago, recognised that this was no normal election; that what was at stake was the future of India. She had to decide if she wanted to vote for an elected autocracy and a society divided by hate. She had to decide if she was going to be bought over by a barrage of false promises and a mirage of future national glory. She wisely decided that enough was enough. With the power of the (index) finger, she decided that it was not sufficient to deny the BJP its desired super-majority. It had to be reduced to a minority. We must recognise and respect the scale of the political defeat of the BJP in these Lok Sabha elections. We should not be fooled by claims of a “historic third term” (yes, but in a coalition, and not with a BJP majority) or “Modi 3.0” (yes, but again, only the support of coalition partners). A political party that was crowing about its invincibility until just a few weeks ago and planning a “1,000 year legacy” has been humbled at the polls. The BJP holds on to power but it has been taught a lesson.

If all constitutional bodies had been honest in fulfilling their responsibilities and the Executive had not been allowed to get away with its hounding of the Opposition, then the outcome in a truly free and fair election would have been as complete as in 1977.

The enormity of what the voter achieved

For India’s voters to have the confidence to complete the job in the next round of elections, they must first take pride in the enormity of what they have achieved. That is why we must acknowledge the extent to which Narendra Modi and the BJP have been humbled.

Narendra Modi and the BJP will certainly not give up in spite of being reduced to a minority in Parliament. They remain in office, they have the money power, they hold all the levers of power, and have big business allied with them. They will not change their mode of functioning, for we have seen over a decade that it is their second nature not to respect democracy. But having tasted defeat they now stand weakened, which is what one must draw strength from after the most consequential of elections since 1977. If in 2024 we had ended up with “400 Paar”, we would have had little hope of rolling back the autocracy that would have emerged. The voters have empowered the Opposition to question the National Democratic Alliance government in Parliament and on the streets; and they have signalled to constitutional bodies that they too have a responsibility to protect India’s democracy. We could not have asked more of India’s voters.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is a journalist based in Hyderabad

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