National

Decoding Modi 3.0

What does the 2024 Lok Sabha election result mean for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his third term?

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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Elections in India are never a dull affair. Fearmongering from all sides, accusations of frauds, unthinkable alliances for political gains, spreading misinformation, promising the world to the electorate without really explaining how those promises would be kept; parties pretty much throw the bus at any chance of a win. But in the end, at least since the last decade now, electorates have typically given a decisive mandate in favour of a government formed by one party, be it at the Centre or at the states. The hullabaloo of elections transitions into a relatively smooth takeover by the elected majority government, with one party settled for the next five years without the risk of premature elections looming. The 2024 Lok Sabha election results seem to have beaten this trend and how! The era of coalition is back.

While it’s relatively easier to analyse a clear victory or defeat, the current outcome makes for an exciting study for its sheer complexity. The disappointed reaction from the winning party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which formed the government, is in direct contrast with the celebratory scenes coming from the Opposition. While the Congress is clearly a distant second to the BJP in terms of numbers, its alliance, INDIA, got close enough to give a jitter or two to the incumbent government. The two main allies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have assured their support for now, but both the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Janata Dal [United] (JDU) may keep assessing their own political advantage from time to time and weigh if their best interest lies with the BJP. Having said that, the NDA at this point is much sturdier than the mosaic which makes the INDIA bloc. However, for the BJP, there needs to be a nuanced analysis of its performance. While on the one hand, coming back to power for a third consecutive term with sizeable seats is no mean feat, setbacks in its stronghold states like Uttar Pradesh including losing the prestige seat of Faizabad (Ayodhya) is surely worrisome. Though ‘‘Abki baar 400 paar” was clearly an ambitious target, the BJP’s inability to cross the simple majority mark after the thumping victory of 2019 shows a crack in the armour of the party which seemed invincible hitherto. This perhaps explains the mood in the INDIA camp as the Opposition could finally figure out a way through the formidable BJP—a disciplined, cadre-based organisation that has changed the dynamics of electoral fights in India. It may not have resulted in a clear-cut victory for now, but the Opposition may surely be fancying its chances in the upcoming assembly elections in large states like Maharashtra, Bihar and UP.

So, what does the 2024 mandate mean for the BJP and for Prime Minister Modi in his third term? Some interesting takeaways emerge from the broader trends of the elections. Evidence shows that the Modi government’s performance on key aspects such as the economy, social welfare, empowerment, infrastructure development, national security, foreign policy, rejuvenation of Hindutva, development of the Ram Temple, Kashi Vishwanath, Mahakal corridor, etc. resonated well with the national electorate. Data shows that the party continued to hold on to its national vote share despite a ten-year incumbency; vote share marginally dipped from 37.7% in 2019 to 36.6% in 2024. However, in terms of the number of seats, the picture is completely different. The 1 percentage point drop in vote share cost the BJP 63 seats (from 303 in 2019 to 240 in 2024). In contrast, the Congress’ national vote share increased only by around 1.5 percentage points (from 19.7% in 2019 to 21.2% in 2024), but in terms of seats, its numbers doubled (from 52 in 2019 to 99 in 2024). One possible explanation of this could be the first-past-the-post system, which may disproportionately amplify seat losses given the lower voter turnout this time around. This is also corroborated by the fact that in 60 seats, the winning margin this time was less than 2.5% of the total votes polled. The BJP managed to grab 20 out of these 60 seats.

On the other hand, issues such as unemployment and inflation impacted voter behaviour. This probably explains why some enticing promises made by the Congress, such as the Mahalakshmi scheme to provide Rs 1 lakh to women, the apprenticeship scheme to provide jobs and Rs 1 lakh in the first year to the youth found traction with voters. The BJP needs to take note of this development as some of the recent assembly elections in Telangana and Karnataka, where the Congress announced a set of guarantees to offer freebies and cash, have found favour with the electorate. Further, on-ground resentment over local issues also seems to have cost the BJP at the national level. Disenchantment with incumbent BJP governments in some states, anger over ticket distribution to outsiders, and caste-related miscalculations led to losses in states where the BJP had won big in the past. But this trend of regional issues impacting the national vote also benefitted the BJP, especially in states such as Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, where the electorate, in their pursuit to oust the incumbent governments, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP and the NDA, respectively.

Walking the tightrope of reforms and alliance consensus may require keen political deftness. A Coalition is equated with slow decision-making.

The BJP also lost significant seats which are reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Data shows that it lost about twenty SC seats and ten ST seats in large states like UP, Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Karnataka. It’s likely that the fervent narrative on ‘‘the ploy to end reservation by amending the Constitution’’ succeeded in pulling voters from backward communities away from the BJP and towards the INDIA alliance. This narrative seemed to have sown a sense of fear amongst a sizeable section of voters. The BJP could not counter this effectively despite assurances from all its top leaders, including Prime Minister Modi. The BJP’s loss may have been further aggravated by a weakened Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose voters also shifted towards the INDIA bloc in states such as UP for want of a non-BJP alternative. While the BSP may not have won seats this time and has, in fact, seen a decline in its vote share, its core voters are likely to shift their allegiance back if they see a stronger and more aggressive BSP supremo Mayawati in the future.

At the same time, it’s important to look at what worked for the BJP as well. It registered a landslide victory in Odisha and won clean sweeps in strongholds such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi. In the south, the BJP managed to debut in Kerala, double its tally in Telangana, retain most seats in Karnataka and triple its vote share in Tamil Nadu. These facts indicate that contrary to the picture painted by the Opposition, the popularity of the PM and the reach of the BJP are significant still.

The incoming government is a coalition and thus will be prone to instability risks. One may argue that the previous NDA government under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the UPA I and II governments under the Congress completed their full terms despite having fewer seats than the BJP now. Therefore, it is likely that the BJP with its 240 seats could comfortably complete its five years. But it’s important to point out that so far, the NDA under PM Modi hasn’t needed its coalition partners as much as it needs them now. Both the JD(U) and the TDP may demand key portfolios and extract bargains for their constituents in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. Even smaller allies are likely to negotiate given the significance of each seat. The BJP may also look to expand the NDA alliance by adding newer partners in the days ahead. Under these circumstances, the governance style of Modi 3.0 may witness some changes.

It is reasonable to expect that the reforms agenda would continue. Initiatives meant to expand and modernise national infrastructure, enable universal access to basics such as housing, drinking water, electricity, cooking fuel, medical and education care, augment the social security and welfare net for the needy sections of society and develop a robust energy and food security may see further acceleration. However, some big-ticket items that have been important for the BJP such as implementation of Uniform Civil Code (UCC), One Nation One Election, privatisation of PSUs, labour law reforms, etc. may see some resistance in implementation. Herein, walking the tightrope of reforms and alliance consensus may require keen political deftness. A coalition is often equated with slow decision-making and anti-reform. However, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao have proved that even in a coalition, crucial decisions and reforms can be pushed through. Alliances may be key even in subsequent terms post 2029. Respecting and meeting the regional and national aspirations of the alliances will only strengthen the BJP and the NDA’s bid to provide a stable and progressive leadership in the future.

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The Modi government may be disappointed at its less-than- expected performance in the 2024 elections, but it has got a rare opportunity in politics to course correct and be better prepared for the battles ahead. While the Opposition may be in a buoyant mood right now, it may be reminded that the BJP is a resilient party with a disciplined and committed cadre and an enviable pan-India presence. It is led by dedicated leaders who are bound to learn from setbacks. It’s difficult to say at this point what exactly the results of the 2024 elections bode for the future of Indian politics, but to the sceptics, the message is clear that Indian democracy is fair and sound and whatever direction the wind blows, we are in for a very interesting time in Indian politics.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Decoding Modi 3.0')

Kishore Desai is a public policy and infrastructure sector professional

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