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 Analyzing India’s 2024 Election, After
with Dr. John Harriss

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Discussion on the Election Results in India: Modi's Setback and Its Implications for Governance Stability 
June 2024

Today's Totalitarianism invited Dr. John Harriss to share his insights on the Wire’s article “Modi Stands Defeated But He’s Not Giving Up His Destructive Plan for a 1000-Year-Reich.” The following is an excerpt from our interview:

TT - What are your basic thoughts on the outcome of Indian election?


JH - The Indian election didn’t turn out at all as pollsters and almost all commentators expected. The hubris of Narendra Modi’s claim that, this time, his party – the BJP - and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would reach 400 seats in the lower house of parliament, was amply demonstrated, with the BJP itself losing 62 seats, falling back to a total of 240, while its alliance allies secured another 53 seats. The outcome of the election – even though the NDA, if not the BJP alone, continued to command a majority - came as a great relief to all who care at all about democracy in India. As Siddharth Varadarajan, a courageous as well as an astute journalist – I would have feared for him if Modi had won those 400 seats – argues, “Voters have disciplined and rebuked Narendra Modi”. The agenda offered to voters by the BJP was nothing more than ‘Modi’, and it clearly didn’t work as anticipated.


There is good reason for thinking that resistance to Modi’s centralising, authoritarian project, will build in strength, now that his “aura of invincibility” has been so severely dented. Critical institutions such, notably, as the judiciary, and perhaps even the media, should have more space and greater autonomy. But I think it may be going too far to suggest that Modi’s power, as I’ve heard said, has been “greatly diminished”.  ‘Diminished’, yes, but how ‘greatly’ remains to be seen. The respected post-poll surveys of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti show very clearly that popular support for the BJP across the country as a whole remains virtually unchanged from 2019. While, as I said in my comments for TT before the election, the core support for the BJP historically has come from upper castes, under Modi the party has successfully built a broad base of support across Hindu society, drawing on both the appeal of Hindu ethno-nationalism and on effective delivery of welfare goods. The CSDS-Lokniti data show that this base remains largely intact. What happened in the election was that the BJP lost some support in a few crucially important states – notably in Uttar Pradesh (UP) which accounts for the largest number of seats (80) among the Indian states in the lower house, and in Maharashtra, which accounts for the second largest number (48), together with Rajasthan (25) and Haryana (10). The BJP lost 53 seats across these four states.


In each of them specific local factors were involved, including failures of organisation and judgement, and divisions, in the state branches of the BJP – while, in contrast, in UP especially the opposition alliance (between the regional Samajwadi Party and the Indian National Congress) worked particularly effectively.  Data from the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey, and the reports of journalists who travelled in villages and towns across the country certainly show that unemployment and the lack of job opportunities after ten years of government by Modi and the BJP, as well as inflation, weighed with voters. The consistent message of the opposition about the need for realisation of social justice in the face of the huge inequality in the country struck a chord with many, while fears that with an enhanced majority the BJP would be able to rewrite the Constitution and eliminate affirmative action for them, caused significant numbers of Dalits to shift away from the ruling party. Still, the facts remain that the support base of the BJP holds nationally, and that Modi and the BJP have increased their electoral support across a large swathe of the country, including the south. The political mainstream of India remains firmly aligned with the Hindutva project. As Varadarajan concludes his article, “A safe harbour is still some distance away”. 


TT - What can you tell us about the kind of coalition that Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have formed, now that BJP has lost their majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament)? 


JH - As many commentators have remarked, until now, both as Chief Minister in his home state, Gujarat, and in ten years as prime minister, Narendra Modi has always ruled with his party enjoying a clear majority, so that his unquestionably authoritarian, centralising proclivities, have encountered little restraint. How will he now cope with the demands of managing a coalition, especially one in which the two other parties on which he particularly depends, are headed by leaders who have a history of switching between partners? He has started with the evident intent of making the coalition work, representing himself as the prime ministerial candidate of the NDA, rather than of the BJP, and giving the main alliance partners prominent places in public presentations. The principal players in the National Democratic Alliance, other than the BJP, are the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a regional party based in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, which is headed by Chandrababu Naidu, and the Janata Dal (United) Party (JD(U)), based in Bihar, headed by Nitish Kumar (who has contrived to remain effectively in power as chief minister in that state since 2005). The TDP has 16 seats in the Lok Sabha and the JD(U) 12, so that together they almost give Modi his majority.


Yet each of them only rejoined the NDA very shortly before the election. Nitish Kumar has taken his party into alliance with the BJP, and out again, several times, most recently taking it out of alliance in 2022, only to rejoin the NDA in January 2024. Naidu took his party out of the NDA in 2018, because of the Modi government’s refusal to agree to ‘Special Category Status’ for the state of Andhra Pradesh - a classification granted by the central government of India to some states to assist their development in case of special need. In the case of Andhra, it was held by Naidu to be because of the loss of revenue following the bifurcation of the state in 2014. In February 2019, Modi’s principal lieutenant, the Home Minister Amit Shah, declared that Naidu was a ‘u-turn chief minister’ who would be forever denied entry into the NDA – yet it was Shah who presided over the readmission of the TDP on March 9, 2024, very shortly before the national elections.  


Neither Naidu and the TDP, nor Nitish Kumar and the JD(U), shares in the ethno-nationalist Hindutva agenda of the BJP. The latter – Kumar and his party - have their origins in the Indian socialist movement, and Kumar was responsible for the conduct in Bihar in 2022-23 of a ‘caste census’, to establish the numbers and the socio-economic status of each of the castes of the state. Its findings, announced in the fall of 2023, showed that the share of the population that should be entitled to the benefits of affirmative action (especially reservations of public sector jobs) is much greater than had previously been supposed. It re-ignited demands for a national caste census, in the interests it is claimed, of furthering social justice for historically disadvantaged people. This demand was taken up by the opposition in the recent elections, to good effect, and it seems to have played a part in influencing some lower caste people, in UP in particular, to shift their support away from the BJP – which has not been supportive of the caste census. It has been decried by Narendra Modi as threatening to fragment the unity of the Hindu people. Nitish Kumar will most likely continue to push for the conduct of a national caste census. Both Modi and Amit Shah, also, in the course of the election campaign, in the context of their anti-Muslim rhetoric, promised to do away with ‘religion based reservations’. Yet the state of Andhra Pradesh, in common with thirteen others, does allow for affirmative action for some Muslim groups – and the Telugu Desam Party has already made clear that it has no intention of doing away with this support for them. It does seem reasonable to believe that it will not be easy for Modi to win support from the two leaders for the policy of instating a uniform civil code, so removing constitutional guarantees to minorities regarding their rights to maintain their religious practices.     


At the time of writing there is no public knowledge of the deals that are surely being offered by Modi and the BJP to secure the loyal support of the TDP and the JD(U), though there is every reason for thinking that the states in which the parties are based will be granted ‘Special Category Status’ (Bihar because of its poverty). What the implications of this will be for the future of Indian federalism remains to be seen. The BJP has strong centralizing, ‘One Nation’ ambitions, and it is unclear how far the two regional parties will oppose them. The JD(U) has supported the Modi government’s plans to legislate so that in future national and state elections will be held at the same time – ‘One Nation, One Poll’ – though this is expected to favour the BJP as the main national party. The fact that two regional parties are in a position to exercise some leverage on the central government doesn’t necessarily mean that they will fight for the interests of the states in general against the centre.  


TT - What can you tell us about Modi’s ties to big business and how these might change in the next government? 

JH - It is well known that two very big businessmen, Gautam Adani and Mukhesh Ambani are personally close to Narendra Modi – the first of the two especially so, and his companies have done exceptionally well since 2014, though his position as Asia’s wealthiest man took a big hit with the publication of highly critical evidence about business practices in his group. Very recently, further data were published concerning over-pricing of very large consignments of coal by one of his companies. There is no doubt that the companies of both Adani and Ambani have enjoyed special favours from government since Modi took power, and his relationships with them, above all, have earned his regime a reputation for crony capitalism – while some other leading businessmen have spoken of a climate of fear. The fact that private investment should have remained flat, or declining, over the period in which Modi has ruled, is surely a reflection of a business climate of uncertainty that the efforts of the government to improve India’s standing in the Ease of Doing Business Index evidently did nothing to ease. How far this will change under the new circumstances is uncertain, though I do not expect to see much of a difference. Even though Modi made an extraordinary claim during the election about Adani and Ambani handing over vast sums clandestinely to the Congress party, they were still honoured guests at his inauguration for his third term as prime minister.  


TT -  According to the article, 800 million Indians rely on free grain from the government. How has this fact influenced, if at all, the election outcome? 

JH - There is no doubt that the effective delivery of welfare goods, including grain rations, by the government, which has associated them with Narendra Modi in such a way as to make them appear to be his personal gifts, has worked well electorally for the BJP. But there have been reports, this time around, of people saying that they need jobs so that they can look after themselves and their families, rather than having to rely on hand-outs such as free grain. The most telling indictment of Indian development, going right back to the early years of the republic, is the failure to generate productive employment, and the effective ‘exclusion’, as it has been argued, of labour. There is every reason for thinking that the problem of joblessness will haunt the new government and that welfare hand-outs, religious theatre and political spectacle featuring India’s strongman, will not forever assuage the Hindu masses. 


TT - Will Modi now find it politically useful to back off on his anti-Muslim rhetoric? 


JH - Usually, during his decade in office as prime minister, Modi has left anti-Muslim rhetoric to others, tacitly condoning it. It seemed to many of us that his resort to crude hate speech during the election campaign was a marker of increasing defensiveness, giving us reason for thinking that the election wasn’t going quite as anticipated. If he is wise, he will back off, and he’ll almost certainly need to in order to keep the NDA together - as I suggested earlier. But this certainly won’t mean that Modi himself, and the BJP, relinquish the objective of establishing a Hindu rashtra in place of a liberal democracy, and clearly reducing Muslims to the status of second-class citizens. There is no Muslim among the 72 ministers and ministers-of-state who have very recently been appointed. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the core organisation of the movement of Hindu ethno-nationalism, of which Modi was a devoted member from an early age, and which is the parent of the BJP, has always played a long game. Together, they’ll go on chipping away at the foundations of liberal democracy. 


John Harriss is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, and previously taught at the LSE and the University of East Anglia. He has done research in and on India since 1971. Most recent book (with Craig Jeffrey and Trent Brown), India: Continuity and Change in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2020).

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