The 2024 Lok Sabha Elections – What Next?

Author: Pravar Petkar, Head of Strengthening Democracy Desk

The world’s largest democratic exercise has now concluded. The BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate and incumbent PM Narendra Modi is set for a third term in office. Yet the dynamics now are very different to those in 2014 and 2019: gone is the BJP’s overall majority; Modi instead must govern in a coalition with the BJP’s partners in the National Democratic Alliance, which collectively won 293 out of the 543 seats in India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House). The result shows India’s democracy is alive and kicking: to borrow Mark Twain’s phrase, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

No democracy worth its salt can fail to have free and fair elections, with a peaceful transfer of power and the possibility that incumbents might be voted out. The results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections show a democracy in action. From 2019, the BJP lost 63 seats (falling from 303 to 240), with the NDA as a whole dropping 60 seats. Conversely, the Indian National Congress (INC) almost doubled its vote share from 2019, rising from 52 seats to 99. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of which the INC was part held only 91 seats in 2019, but the newly formed INDI Alliance (Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance), established before the campaign began, secured 234 seats in total. This represents a significant anti-incumbent swing, with around 642 million of the 970 million registered voters having turned out to vote (approximately 66%). This puts some perspective on allegations by the INC before the announcement of the results that the counting process was rigged in favour of the BJP. There is also little concrete evidence that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were manipulated, with the Supreme Court of India affirming the integrity of the process in April 2024. In fact, the celebration of the results by all the major parties only lends further credibility to India’s electoral arrangements.

The results suggest that Indian democracy is shaped by a complex series of factors that cannot be reduced to the politics of religion. Some commentators have suggested that the BJP’s loss of seats demonstrates that economic issues will always trump the politics of religion. Whilst the BJP campaign did draw on religion – including an address by PM Modi in Rajasthan in which he claimed that under the INC, Muslims would have “the first right” over people’s wealth – both parties highlighted India’s current issues of youth unemployment. That said, the INC manifesto was headlined by a proposal for a nationwide socio-economic and caste census, and the promise of increased affirmative action for Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC) groups. As they have in previous elections, caste politics may have shaped the outcomes in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. For many, the question is whether the politics of religion have run aground on the rocks of democracy: the answer is not yet clear.

For most, the outcome of these elections is rather unexpected. It had been assumed across the world in the lead-up that the BJP would secure another overall majority. Amit Shah, the Home Minister from 2019 to 2024, had even suggested that the NDA was aiming for 400 Lok Sabha seats, a record majority. It is difficult to square the BJP’s downturn with the view – expressed by the INC, members of the international media and academic commentators – that India had simply ceased to be a democracy between 2014 and 2024 because the BJP was in power. As Rahul Verma of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi puts it, “the assertion that the erosion of democratic values is the creation of one party and its recent electoral success is an untenable oversimplification.” This is neither to obscure nor deny the religious nationalism of the 2019 BJP Government, or the way in which a one-party government has led to the centralisation of political authority in India. However, judgments about the health of any country’s democracy must be made based on structural and long-term factors, and as Verma suggests, by reference to standards attuned to each country’s unique institutional and cultural features. A flourishing and sustainable democracy does not cease to be so simply because a different party comes into power, nor does democracy suddenly become re-awakened when authoritarian, populist or anti-democratic parties are voted out.

There are nevertheless two structural challenges to Indian democracy which are currently worthy of attention. First, recent commentary by the ICfS has noted issues in the appointment process for the Election Commission of India (ECI): after the Supreme Court of India had mandated the Leader of the Opposition’s involvement in appointments, the BJP Government legislated to replace the Leader of the Opposition with a Cabinet Minister instead. The natural conclusion is that a watchdog that ought to be independent has been politicised. This has raised questions around whether the ECI’s application of the Model Code of Conduct – including a finding that PM Modi’s Rajasthan speech violated the code – was truly objective, as violation notices were issued to both the INC and BJP as parties, rather than to individual candidates. Maintaining India’s long-term democratic health requires the new NDA Government to reverse these changes and safeguard the ECI’s independence.

Second, questions persist over whether India’s regulatory framework for tackling AI-generated misinformation is up to scratch. The 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign saw deepfakes of Bollywood actors criticising PM Modi , as well as fabricated videos of two deceased politicians in Tamil Nadu addressing today’s voters. Recent Government-issued advisory notes emphasise the obligations upon social media platforms and AI companies to be transparent about AI-generated content and remove anything unlawful. However, the broader regulatory scheme exposes platforms to criminal liability for unlawful speech where content is flagged by Government-approved fact-checkers as ‘false’. This raises free speech concerns that go the heart of whether Indian citizens can make decisions at the ballot box based on a wide range of perspectives. With the BJP Government having suggested in February 2024 that draft AI regulations would be released in July this year, the disinformation devil will truly be in the detail that follows.

The results of the world’s largest ever democratic exercise will likely usher in a change in governing, if not wholly one in the identity of the government. The lack of an overall majority for the BJP marks a return to the norm of coalition government that characterised Indian democracy between 1989 and 2014. The BJP’s coalition partners in the NDA include the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), all of whose 16 seats were secured in the southern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal (United) – the JD(U) – whose 12 seats are located in the eastern state of Bihar, which borders Nepal. With the BJP reliant upon the support of both parties as well as its smaller coalition partners to pass legislation, it will have to take a more consultative approach to government. The perceived centralisation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office – a phenomenon familiar to voters in the UK during the premiership of Boris Johnson – will not be able to continue given the broader range of interests in play. Moreover, both the TDP and the JD(U) have a strong focus on development and social welfare in their regions. Accordingly, the religious polarisation seen at points during the election campaign may take a back step under the 2024 NDA regime. The very existence of this coalition marks the people of India tugging on the chain of the BJP to bring it back to a more modest and moderate political position. Nevertheless, the regional concentration of the TDP and JD(U)’s seats might also lead to pork barrel politics writ large: demands over the next five years that both Andhra Pradesh and Bihar receive the lion’s share of the benefits of government schemes should not come as a surprise.

The coming months will indicate whether India’s new coalition government will mark a change in its political weather. Regardless of how India’s economic, social and foreign policy begin to take shape under the NDA, one thing is clear: Indian democracy remains alive and kicking – the people have told us so.

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