Congress Party president Mallikarjun Kharge, center, with other leaders of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) after their meeting in New Delhi, India, June 5, 2024 (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power since 2014, increasing its hold on the country with each election. About six months ago, my husband, Ravi, and a few others began telling people here that its projected win in this year’s elections was far from certain. Few believed them. While everyone wanted it to be true, all the signs said otherwise: not only would the BJP win, but the win this time would be historic. Our children in the United States and the United Kingdom concurred. The reliable sources they were hearing confirmed the news here: Narendra Modi, India’s strongman, was coasting toward a third term as prime minister.

But when the votes were counted after the largest election in the world (650 million people voted), the BJP failed to achieve its projected landslide of four hundred seats and could not even win a clear majority. Without the support of allies, it would be unable to form a government.

What did Ravi and his friends know that the mass media and political pundits missed? They had been out and about in villages, small towns, and large cities for months, talking to women, unemployed youth, farmers, and small-business owners. They soon realized that, in spite of a massive media campaign to promote the BJP, many voters had rejected its ideology of hate. They knew better than to trust the received wisdom. My own confidence was not so scientific. I based it on forty-three years of experience with Indians of various religions, classes, castes, and political viewpoints. I had a gut feeling that the ethos of hatred and division that Modi and his colleagues had promoted tirelessly for the past decade did not reflect the beliefs of average voters.

The 2024 elections were simultaneously the most hotly contested and the most unequal in India’s seventy-five-year history. Modi did everything in his power to ensure his victory. He jailed some opposition leaders, filed charges of tax evasion and money laundering against others, bought almost all the major media, and froze the bank accounts of the Congress Party—the second-largest political party in the country. Outspent and outmaneuvered, the opposition parties still managed to unite as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), with an agreement to support whichever candidate was the most likely to win in a particular district. Many commentators believe that, had there been a level playing field, INDIA would now be forming a government instead of the BJP.

Still, though technically a defeat, the opposition’s success was unprecedented. Election Day had an unreal atmosphere. The body language of those official “losers” was confident and buoyant, while the “winners” could barely look each other in the eye. The BJP victory party had the atmosphere of a funeral, with Modi playing the part of a priest delivering a eulogy. The audience was dispirited and lethargic. The applause was forced, the cheering and slogan-shouting halfhearted.

The fact remains, however, that Modi will still be the prime minister. He was sworn in the Sunday after the election and announced his cabinet a few days later. All the usual suspects have been reappointed, including the much-feared Amit Shah as home minister. It is Shah who investigates opposition members, often for innocuous offenses like a negative post on social media or a demonstration in favor of communal harmony. 

This government is committed to destroying civil society, and I fall into that category.

 

I experienced this myself eighteen months ago, when three police officers turned up at our home after I posted a mildly critical tweet. Though my tweet was factually accurate and indeed admiring of the long Indian tradition of tolerance for other religions, it was deliberately misconstrued. In addition to the stress of the police investigation, I was targeted mercilessly by Twitter trolls for several weeks. A month later, my organization’s license to accept foreign donations was revoked.

I am a nobody in the grand scheme of things. My organization works for disabled children, most of whom are poor. I have no political motives, and I have never tried to convert anyone to Christianity. Any threat I might pose is purely imaginary. But this government is committed to destroying civil society, and I fall into that category.

Without a majority, the BJP will be unable to tamper with the constitution—one of the opposition’s deepest fears—but it will still be a force of division, and it will still be committed to development at the cost of the environment and to neoliberal economic policies at the cost of the poor. But for all its flaws in principle and policy, the BJP is a huge election machine with a well-trained rank and file whose network extends to every village and town in the country.

And in spite of its moral victory, INDIA has huge hurdles to overcome. The country’s opposition parties have a history of squabbling and infighting among—and even within—themselves. Their ability to band together for the sake of these elections astonished everyone. No one expects them to continue on such friendly terms for long. Nor do any of the opposition parties have the kind of well-oiled election machine they would need to match the BJP’s. Indeed, after licking its wounds for a few hours, the BJP soon got back to work promoting the agenda it hasn’t swerved one inch from. It withdrew permission to accept foreign funds from yet another NGO doing good work and threatened a few more people, including the acclaimed writer Arundhati Roy, for a speech she gave in 2010. Meanwhile, the INDIA alliance is still celebrating. No meetings have been held; no strategic plan has been formulated; no agenda has been set.

Modi’s defeat was a singular moment in the history of India—a rebuke by voters whose sense of fairness and justice had been offended once too often by the BJP. Unfortunately, the opposition alliance is in danger of sleeping through their new opportunity. 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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