A Passage to India

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M. Nasir Chaudhry

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), not Narendra Modi, has been elected by the Indian electorate to lead the country for a five-year mandate. The outcome defied exit polls which, for any India watcher, were manipulated, chiefly due to the traction the opposition was gaining on the ground and a lurking fear within the poll pundits of not getting on the wrong side of the great leader.
Let us examine three components of this outcome: the events preceding the elections, the reasons why the Modi brand diminished, and how Pakistan must approach the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship, which is unstable and at constant risk of descending into a downward spiral.
The BJP and Mr. Modi’s iron-fisted rule for a decade closely mirrors the tenure of another ex-Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The events leading to the Lok Sabha elections of 2024 are quite like the Emergency era of Indira Gandhi, wherein she suspended basic rights, deracinated the country’s social fabric, and upended civil liberties. The high-voltage campaigns run by the political parties only added to this historic election against this backdrop. Subsequent occurrences in the world’s largest exercise of adult franchise raised serious questions about fundamental rights and fairness as enshrined under the Indian constitution. It is, therefore, not surprising that a reinvigorated opposition, contesting as the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc, had pitched this as a fight to save the “Samvidhan” or the constitution.
That the INDIA alliance held together despite opposing ideologies and diverse credentials of its leading protagonists may have been due to electoral setbacks in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but more consequentially due to the relentless crackdown by Mr. Modi on its members across the country.
The lead-up to the polls saw a calibrated, sustained onslaught on the opposition. Not only was the largest opposition party, the Congress, denied access to its funds, but its top leader, Rahul Gandhi, was also expelled from parliament on charges of defaming Mr. Modi’s surname with a house eviction notice. Two sitting Chief Ministers—Delhi and Jharkhand—were arrested on charges of corruption, an unprecedented 140 MPs were expelled from parliament for protesting a security breach, and the custodian of the lower house of the Lok Sabha denied the opposition the democratic right to raise their grievances in parliament. Another firebrand leader from the opposition and a leading critic of the PM, Mahua Moitra, was expelled from parliament on accusations of accepting bribes for asking questions in parliament. Ms. Moitra was known for her dogged fight in and outside parliament amidst disclosures made by Hindenburg Research on the financial improprieties conducted by the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, who is rumored to be close to and favored by PM Modi since his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Other important events include the persistent execution of ‘Operation Lotus’ to dislodge elected governments in Madhya Pradesh, Goa (twice), Karnataka, and Maharashtra. The last case is important since the BJP, for supremacy, broke ranks with its ideological ally, the Shiv Sena, engineering a split in its ranks. Such defections and inorganic splits in various parties across India were facilitated by the brazen use of Central and State agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation, Taxation, and anti-corruption departments. And where rarely the instrument of threat wasn’t sufficient, money was used to coerce and coax sitting and returning members of various parties/legislatures.
The BJP juggernaut has particularly decimated India’s free media, earning it the acronym ‘Godi’ media by the opposition. While traditionally being one of the most liberal and outspoken in the world, Mr. Modi continued to treat the media with contempt and disdain. The last decade saw many prominent journalists forced out of TV screens and newsrooms, and a near-diktat on independent editorial practices. No wonder many prominent anchors took to YouTube, with many dubbing this as a “YouTube election.”
So why did the Modi brand diminish, resulting in the 2024 verdict?
It is important to note that Mr. Modi’s popular appeal rests on a carefully cultivated personality cult. A driving module of this image has been the cultivation of prevailing undercurrents of religion that have always existed in the Indian body politic. The Ram Temple’s consecration, restarting worship at Gyanvapi, and suggestions of a new temple complex at Mathura are some examples. Modi recast himself as the savior of the Hindu nation who has ushered in the Amrit Kaal (Amrit Kaal in Vedic astrology is an auspicious time to start new work). He has, therefore, cast his opponents as non-conforming Hindus who were products of a colonial mindset or Lutyens’ Delhi. They have been classed as remnants of a decadent elite which takes no pride in its identity or religion. It is under this outward form that questionable methods have been forcefully applied to sustain and nourish an agenda.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.