India's elections defied the world's expectations of its democracy

The results, and how they were achieved, showed what Indian voters already know about their own country

More than 640 million people voted during India's seven-phase election. EPA
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In some places, donkeys carried the election voting machines (EVMs) through dirt tracks to reach a few voters (sometimes even one) deep inside forests, or on top of top mountains. In some others, jeeps and even ox carts waded through rivers and streams to ensure, as the law mandates, no voter should have to travel more than two kilometres from the place they are registered to exercise their democratic right.

India’s seven-phase election saw more than 640 million voters (of a total of nearly 970 million) express their democratic opinion across 28 states and eight union territories spread over more than one month.

Each Indian election is the biggest ever democratic exercise in history, not least because India is the world’s largest country by population. But to state that almost diminishes the value of a lower middle-income country with 22 official languages running a fully digitised election process using EVMs and with no complaints of fraud or malpractice. Unlike in American elections, there are no incessant complaints of “election theft” and no rampaging mobs assault the Indian Parliament as happened on Capitol Hill in 2021 after the defeat of Donald Trump.

There were no arrests, no killings, no riots and no mass violence in the Indian election. In Mexico, which had an election simultaneous to India’s, 37 people were murdered. Mexico’s per capita GDP is around four and a half times larger than India’s.

And yet, for the past two years, there has been a chorus, especially across the West, that India’s democracy was in trouble, that it was “backsliding” (as America’s Centre for Progress claimed in July of last year). Around the same time, the Journal of Democracy published an essay declaring that India’s democracy was “dying”. The American think tank Freedom House downgraded India to a “partially free democracy” in 2021, from a “free democracy”. Similar descriptions and rankings, and opinion pieces, came from other quarters including Sweden’s V-Dem Institute.

One British academic started talking about India as a “one-party state” because the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had won back-to-back, full-majority elections in 2014 and 2019 with anticipation of a third victory in 2024. This was said without irony, as some Indians pointed out, in the UK, which is in its 14th year of unbroken Tory party rule.

For the past two years, there has been a chorus, especially across the West, that India’s democracy was in trouble

As it so transpired, 751 political parties participated in the Indian elections, up from 677 in 2019, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, an Indian think tank. And the BJP did not get a full majority, even though it emerged as the single-largest party, and Mr Modi would be governing a coalition with two other major state-based parties whose support is necessary for the functioning of what is now India’s government-in-waiting.

The main opposition, the Congress party, bounced back after a decade of slump to nearly double their number of seats, and, further defying widespread expectations, even the parliamentary seat where the grand new Ram temple has been built, which has been a cornerstone of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics, was won by a state-level political organisation, the Samajwadi Party. The BJP, though, gained many seats in the eastern part of the country, in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, which for long had been bastions of other regional parties.

This election also broke another set of theories, which had been propagated internationally and at home – namely, that the BJP wins mainly in poorer, but large and populous states in the north (often called the "Hindi heartland" because Hindi is the predominant language there) while the richer, more literate, more industrialised and less populous states in the south of India do not vote for the BJP.

This theory appeared in several international publications with the catchy moniker India’s “north-south divide”. Only, this election proved this to be completely wrong.

Support from key southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka were critical in getting Mr Modi to this point, where he is preparing to take the oath as Prime Minister once again and complete a hat-trick. Even in a state like Kerala, which was, in popular punditry, seen as impossible to breach for the BJP, the party broke in and won an important seat. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP hit its highest ever vote share of nearly 11 per cent.

The result, and the aftermath, has been uniquely Indian. The BJP alone won 240 seats – more than the entire opposition INDIA alliance (234) – yet it sounded despondent. It had aimed to win 400 seats along with its coalition partners, but they were stopped at 293. And the despondency is in spite of the fact that no other party since 1991 has ever won as many seats as the BJP. Congress, with only 99 seats, has been celebrating as it sees a real chance to bounce back after a decade. And India is once again in an era of coalition deals on ministerial berths and responsibilities as per seats won – something that was forgotten for 10 years.

Mr Modi will soon be the only Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first, to be hold the chair three times. You wouldn’t know it from the joy being displayed by opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, though.

But that’s the curious nature of a democracy as vast and sprawling as India, where the only people who perhaps really understand are the ordinary Indians, tens of millions of them, who braved temperatures rising to 45°C and more to cast their vote, and ordinary electoral officials, some of whom, in the line of duty during this extraordinary summer, in fact died of extreme heatstroke.

This is a commitment to democracy that Indians would argue outsider analysts, quick to judge, slow to comprehend and often from erstwhile colonial powers, could never understand, let alone judge.

Published: June 07, 2024, 4:00 AM