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Prime Minister Narendra Modi garlanded after election result. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

India elections The shock results show Modi is no longer as popular as he thought he was

India might be on the path to recovery from jingoistic hubris, writes journalist Priyanka Borpujari.

THIS MORNING, MY mother texted me a photo of the first monsoon rain from our backyard in Mumbai. It heralds monsoon and the end to an unbearable summer.

The rain is also a symbolic respite, based on the events from yesterday, a day which India will remember for many years as one causing a seismic shift. The last time this happened was in 2014; the shift was towards a decade of hooliganism all in the name of championing an identity of India that favours Hindus by erasing Muslims.

That era, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, went on for a whole decade when he won the elections in 2019 with a sweeping majority. Yesterday’s election results have shown that he is no longer as popular as he imagined himself to be; the idea of India as one only for Hindus has been rejected by a large segment of the 1.4 billion people. This new seismic shift is that of people’s resistance — seen through the way they have voted — with a possibility of calm.

A narrow victory

The result so far is this: of the 430 seats that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had contested, it has won only 240 seats. A win of 272 seats is needed to form a government in the Parliament of 543 seats. BJP had won 303 seats in 2019; full of notions of winning 400 this year.

On the other hand, the Congress party won 99 seats, along with a large bunch of smaller regional parties that it has formed an alliance with, to challenge BJP’s dominance. BJP’s entire campaign was built on the magnanimity of Modi’s personality; “God has sent me,” was his last election message. For anyone who has come close to understanding the bedlam of the BJP, these numbers are significant, even as Modi might still lead the country. More details will be clear in the coming days: if some of the parties in alliance with BJP defect, then that will change the mathematics completely, of who will form a government. BJP is winning and yet disappointed; Congress isn’t winning and yet jubilant. What has given Indians like me new hope is the formidable resistance against BJP.

This alone summarises how vital it has been to push back against the might of this man and his army on the streets and on WhatsApp, that has gone after Muslims with threats online and other means. The past decade has left the country bruised in too many ways, with the Muslim population carrying the biggest and deepest scars. Modi also played with the fate of the vast poor, most strikingly in 2016, when he announced overnight the demonetisation of higher currency notes as a way to end corruption. Thousands of people were rendered penniless when their hard-earned cash savings were simply pieces of paper; many ended their lives in despair.

The Modi years

News of declining democracy in India has circulated globally, even as Modi has courted world leaders, who have uncomfortably accepted his awkward hugs, as their better option in the face of China’s dominance over global markets. Poverty levels have risen in this decade; indigenous lands were given out for cheap to companies to mine, while mining giant Adani — whose coal mining in Australia has faced much resistance — has been accused of working with the government to clamp down on climate activists.

But most of all, the continuous verbal jibes towards Muslims by Modi himself opened the floodgates for extraordinary everyday violence towards Muslims across India. The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 — when BJP workers suspected he had stored beef in his refrigerator, which was later found to be mutton — conveyed to many of us that this is no longer the secular India we grew up in. Anyone questioning Modi faced consequences: BBC’s offices were raided and sealed by tax officials after a documentary that criticised him had aired. India fell 21 points on the World Press Freedom Index since Modi became the Prime Minister, ranking 161 out of 180 countries. Seven journalists continue to be in prison. The judiciary, too, was forced to bend; lawyers defending civil rights were put behind bars. This election was thus not a competition for the chair of the PM, but one to save the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Modi’s promise to end corruption saw the profit margins of conglomerates like Ambani and Adani soar; southern Europe got a taste of Mukesh Ambani’s bling during his son’s pre-wedding party that had Pitbull, Katy Perry, Rihanna and others as entertainers, and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Ivanka Trump among the guests.

jamnagar-india-02nd-mar-2024-jam-mar-02-ani-reliance-foundation-chairperson-and-founder-nita-ambani-shares-a-light-moment-with-ivanka-trump-during-the-pre-wedding-bash-of-her-son-anant-ambani 2 Mar, 2024. Nita Ambani shares a light moment with Ivanka Trump during the pre-wedding bash of her son Anant Ambani with Radhika Merchant, in Jamnagar. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

While TV news anchors have been busy chanting Modi’s praise, a handful of independent news media have been reporting about people’s anger and exhaustion from BJP hoodwinking. This scared the BJP, which took to brutal forces: even preventing independent candidates from filing their nomination papers.

Elections

The elections took place across seven phases from mid-April and concluded last week, across 1.5 million polling booths. Yes, my homeland is massive; an east-west flight takes over four hours, and it irks me when people assume that there is just one Indian curry. We are a multi-curry species, and the current election has thankfully reflected that diversity. Or, as one person tweeted: so many different parties won in my home state of Maharashtra that it made the electoral map look like a Pride flag.

And that diversity of winning parties — with no singular majority — is the essence of democracy, by bringing back the good old argumentative days of a coalition government. I keep hearing how that hasn’t been a great idea in Ireland, but for us, that has meant diverse voices are being listened to. And deep listening has, in some indirect way, been the reason why the legacy Congress party has won so many seats. Rahul Gandhi — whose great-grandfather was independent India’s first Prime Minister; whose grandmother and father, also Prime Ministers, were assassinated — was always touted as the posh privileged boy who knew nothing about politics. Instead, in 2022, he began to walk the length and breadth of the country over several months, in a long march. And he won hearts and minds aplenty: he connected with people by listening to their woes, erasing any hierarchy, and together calling for a unified vision of India beyond hate.

congress-party-leader-rahul-gandhi-center-extends-his-arm-to-greet-a-supporter-as-he-leaves-with-his-sister-and-party-leader-priyanka-gandhi-vadra-after-addressing-a-press-conference-at-the-party-he Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, centre, extends his arm to greet a supporter as he leaves with his sister and party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra after addressing a press conference on June 4. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There is something visceral about walking and meeting people where they are: the slowing down enables conversations, a door of possibility. I saw that when I had walked 1,200ksm across India with Pulitzer-winning journalist Paul Salopek on the Out of Eden Walk in 2018. Gandhi’s long walk has similarly paid off in a manner that now evokes a sense of joy and hope for a future for India.

Closer to home

Heading into local elections here in Ireland, I am curious about the process here. There have been numerous leaflets at my door, but not one knock. Not a single leaflet that I’ve seen has been of a candidate who has the same skin colour as me; I should have known better because it often feels that people with my skin colour are only viewed as new to the parish by the Irish news media, and not as a vital part of an active and increasingly diverse parish.

What am I voting for in Ireland? I am told that the local election has no teeth in Ireland; that anything that needs to be done is only done by a TD. But my massive homeland just changed the course of history entirely through local grassroots organising! Most people I encounter in Dublin are shocked when I tell them I live in Finglas: “Is it safe?” they ask me, never having ventured that far into the northern hemisphere, and comfortable complaining about the awful public transport rather than demanding better from the government. The shockingly high dependence on cars in Ireland is similar to the complacency of the middle class in India who have a privatised solution for every problem, and hence feel no need to vote, but peddle lies about perceived threats to Hindus through their iPhones. Constituencies where the rich in India reside reveal the lowest voting numbers.

But then there is the video of Sanjana Jatav dancing in celebration as one of the youngest Dalit women to enter the Parliament on a Congress ticket, from her home state that is a bastion of patriarchy and the BJP. We see it in the loss of BJP’s Smriti Irani, who, despite being the Minister of Women and Child Development, did everything in her capacity to prevent women’s emancipation. Most importantly, we see the result in Ayodhya: where the much-controversial Ram temple was built by the BJP towards building Modi’s legacy, but BJP lost its seat there.

The people have shown that a temple cannot replace the needs for functioning hospitals, proper roads, good schools, livable incomes, public transport, climate crisis management, market price for farm produce…. The list is endless, and a regime built on Hindu jingoism cannot deliver them. People braved temperatures crossing 40 degrees Celsius to show that they want progress and a vision for the future.

Modi now knows what people really think of him and his policies; the election result is an audacity of possibility. I wonder if there is any desire by local politicians in Ireland to listen and understand people’s vision for futures and connect with them. Not doing so will lead the island to fall victim to divisive politics by those suffering, who direct their anger towards people who look like me, to feel heard.

A native of India, Priyanka Borpujari has been a journalist for 18 years, reporting from India and several other countries. She currently resides in Dublin and is pursuing a PhD at Dublin City University (DCU), and is finishing her first book on the Nellie massacre of 1983.

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