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A Difficult Win for Modi and BJP, an Honourable Defeat for Congress and INDIA

Where does the 2024 verdict leave Modi, the BJP, and the NDA?

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Two things went wrong in Delhi last week. One was a weather sensor at Mungeshpur, which measured the peak temperature at a record-breaking 52.9 degrees Celsius, and which was later found to be a three-degree overestimation.

The other was a clutch of exit polls that predicted a magnificent victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP, in which the party and its allies were expected to get 350 to 400 seats in the Lok Sabha. It turns out that the political pundits were as off as the weather experts.

With the final tally yet to come, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is now hovering between 290 and 300 seats; but there's a lot more to the verdict after India's toughest and bitterest electoral battle since the end of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress party-led Emergency rule in 1977. The details show strange patterns that might drive us to say curiously contradictory things about the mandate, where the wisdom of the crowd is as fascinating as it is intriguing.

I can imagine Congress leader Rahul Gandhi sending a message to his headquarters, as leader of his Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which the BJP carefully called the INDI Alliance to avoid an acronym trap. The telegram may well read, "Team INDIA lost. But mission accomplished."
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Modi Appears Tall Because He Stands on the Shoulders of His Allies

Such a puzzling message needs some deciphering.

The INDIA grouping did not exist a year ago, got off to a spluttering start, and saw a leading member (Janata Dal-United) walk out to join the BJP, while another (Trinamool Congress) sulked in isolation. In at least two states, its constituents (AAP and the Left Democratic Front) fought the Congress while claiming to be in alliance with the Grand Old Party at the national level. 

If this complicated labyrinth of an alliance succeeded, it is in accomplishing its official mission: "Save the Constitution." The NDA is nowhere near the two-thirds majority in the lower house to tinker with the Constitution.

An excess of fear-mongering happened from both sides in this year's election campaign. Modi equated more or less every socio-economic measure offered by the opposition alliance (some imagined) to resemble the agenda of the pre-Partition Muslim League. He added plenty of Hindu-Muslim sauce to his shrill campaign recipe by invoking cultural symbols.  The opposition cried foul, by focusing on a slew of BJP's official agenda items, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, a "one-nation-one-election" plan, and a Uniform Civil Code promise that translates to an "assault on the Constitution."

Where does the 2024 verdict leave Modi, the BJP, and the NDA?

We can indeed cheer Modi for a third successive win, not seen in six decades. But then, the devil is in the details. In 2019, when the BJP led the NDA to victory, Modi's image was that of a national saviour, as he had just retaliated against a Pakistan-based militant group's fatal attack at Pulwama in Kashmir. The NDA's constituents then looked like the tail of a BJP-led juggernaut.

Not this time. 

This year's verdict shows the NDA's tail gainfully wagging the dog called the BJP. Both Bihar and Andhra Pradesh have contributed significantly to the NDA tally this year; Modi appears tall because he stands on the shoulders of his allies, Nitish Kumar of the JDU and chief minister-in-waiting Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

Both are extremely difficult allies, whose ideologies sit uneasily with the BJP's Hindutva-led platform, and which gives primacy to cultural pride over caste equations or social harmony. NDAs's victory now has a watch-this-space uneasiness. Modi's frequent references to himself in the third-person as a deliverer, saviour, and trendsetter now ring hollow.

We could now look at a tagline that fits the complicated verdict of 2024, "An honourable defeat for Rahul Gandhi's Congress, a difficult win for Modi's BJP".

Results in Uttar Pradesh, where barely three months ago the prime minister had dazzled the country by inaugurating a temple to Lord Rama at a spot where a Muslim mosque stood controversially for about four centuries, have turned out to be a Black Swan for the BJP. Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are the two states where the BJP's Hindu pride runs high.

The BJP's decline and the opposition Samajwadi Party's rise in the Lok Sabha poll display shaky ground in a province where one thought the BJP could take things for granted. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath now needs a political rope trick to stay where he is. We are headed for interesting times.

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Chances are We Will See a Mellower Version of Modi

It might be added that the defeat of giant-killer Smriti Irani of the BJP, who was awarded a ministership after her defeat of Rahul Gandhi in the Congress pocket borough of Amethi in 2019, has been trounced by Kishori Lal Sharma, whose little-known credentials are rubbing salt into the BJP's wounds.

There's a lot more that can be read into the election mandate, but, for the moment, the key point is that Modi 3.0 may be a different person. His shrill campaign speeches, his bluster about welfare schemes, and his vague but alluring promise of making Bharat a developed country now have a maudlin ring that should dent the political halo surrounding Modi's head.

But there's more to this than campaign hype and hubris. The past five years have seen the Supreme Court weigh in so often on contentious issues related to the BJP's administrative pressures, legislative diktats, and law enforcement measures that its governance looked to many like authoritarian steamrolling.

Opposition leaders were jailed on corruption charges without trial. Raids by income tax and Enforcement Directorate officials became fodder for the party's well-oiled organisational machinery to target the BJP's political rivals. The party's noise machine was helped by a clutch of hustler television channels, unfondly called Godi Media by critics for their lapdog quality.

The BJP did lose in the Supreme Court when the highest judicial body held its Electoral Bonds Scheme as illegal, but the party was allowed to retain more than Rs 8,000 crore in its coffers. That's a humungous electoral war chest by any global standard.

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There are sizzling questions in Delhi's awful heatwave after the NDA's uneasy win: Did the power of moneybags, media, and militaristic law enforcers help in this victory? If so, is that a questionable one in terms of political morality? The answer depends on who you are talking to. Modi's vast tribe of admirers, followers, and all sorts of hangers-on are likely to hold him in awe for his strongman style of governance. They see his ways as a passionate expression of patriotic fervour against corruption and dynastic rule.

But then, the ground reality suggests that inflation, unemployment, and everyday agonies of common people are at least as important, if not more, than infrastructure projects, religious zeal, and crackdown policing. 

Modi is still expected to ascend the prime minister's chair, but chances are that we will see a mellower version of his old self. At least some of his glassy-eyed followers, convinced about his invincibility, will now see him in a more vulnerable light. When the 2024 mandate is analysed state-wide, more cracks might appear in the BJP's monochromatic, monolithic version of nationalism.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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