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No Leader Is Bigger Than The Electorate

By R Jagannathan
June 24, 2024 15:29 IST
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There is little doubt that the prime minister's own charisma exceeds that of his party, but 2024 is proof that no party can ultimately depend on one person to deliver victory all the time, points out R Jagannathan.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, accompanied by Union Ministers Kiren Rijiju, Jitendra Singh and L Murugan, walks to Parliament for the first session of the 18th Lok Sabha, June 24, 2024. Photograph: Shrikant Singh//ANI Photo

With hindsight, we can say that 2024 was never a done deal for the Bharatiya Janata Party, given the broader social and economic problems that remained unsolved, particularly unemployment and rural economic weakness.

So, however much the markets may have hoped for stability in politics and economic policy, that is not going to be the case.

To retain power, the BJP will now be dependent on regional allies like the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal-United, with the latter being written off by most observers before polling started.

Worse, they may be in a position to bargain with the other alliance too.

Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin, and Akhilesh Yadav are now the most powerful regional politicians with whom all parties vying for power in Delhi will have to make deals.

The biggest loss of face is for Narendra Modi, who far from achieving his 370+ seats for the BJP (and 400-paar for the National Democratic Alliance or NDA), has not been able to obtain even a simple majority for his party.

There is little doubt that the prime minister's own charisma exceeds that of his party, but 2024 is proof that no party can ultimately depend on one person to deliver victory all the time.

The Congress party discovered this with the Gandhi family over the last decade or even earlier, and the BJP will be smart to reckon with this reality too.

It needs more than one supreme leader to stay in touch with the electorate, and this logic applies to regional leaders too.

Democracy may sometimes favour strong leaders, but when the time comes, the voter is willing to take the risk and vote for change.

The bad news, if one can call it that, is that the politics of anti-incumbency has now replaced the pro-incumbency of recent years, and freebie politics may again take centre-stage.

The BJP, after resisting giveaways this time, may reckon that it has paid a huge electoral price for it, and will be more open to this form of voter enticement in the years ahead.

More so, if its allies keep pushing it in that direction.

The defining trend this time is anti-incumbency. The BJP has lost seats in many of the states where it had maxed out in 2019, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Where it has retained its strengths are in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, and the smaller states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the last of which has given a split verdict in the Lok Sabha and assembly by-elections.

The BJP won all Himachal seats in the Lok Sabha, but lost out to the Congress in the assembly by-polls.

Apart from Uttar Pradesh, the biggest damage suffered by the BJP was in Maharashtra, where the engineered splits in the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party have not only not paid off, but its allies have been humbled.

The BJP would perhaps have fared better if it had not gone in for these unprincipled alliances.

On the plus side, anti-incumbency has also helped the BJP in Odisha, where it has dethroned Naveen Patnaik, and in Andhra Pradesh, where its regional allies have won the day.

IMAGE: Modi with Andhra Pradesh Governor Abdul Nazeer, Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Deputy Chief Minister Pawan Kalyan at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Andhra Pradesh in Vijayawada, June 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

With the Opposition outside the ruling alliance at its strongest since 2014, the political pressures will increase, not least because three major states will go to the polls later this year, including Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, and two others (Bihar and Delhi) next year.

The BJP will be facing a spirited Opposition in at least four of these states, and will have to look for new allies and new policies to retain its perch.

The big winners in 2024 are the Congress party, which has made gains in the Hindi heartland, and the regional parties in their strongholds.

The only regional parties that lost out were the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha (not surprising, given Naveen Patnaik's age and 24-year-long tenure as chief minister), and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana.

The BRS got too big for its boots in 2023, when it set its sights on Delhi, even though its regional base was far from secure. It has now been decimated, with the BJP making gains at its cost.

Elsewhere, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Telugu Desam in Andhra, and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) and NCP (Sharad Pawar) in Maharashtra have come into their own on the back of the BJP's ineptitude.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which had a base in Uttar Pradesh but was never a purely regional party, seems to be fading out.

This has huge implications for Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

This group is looking for new leadership and all regional parties, as well as the Congress and the BJP, will be hoping to make inroads.

As an aside, one can suspect that the Congress's big allegation, that the BJP may end reservations and quotas, may have played a part in the party's big losses in Uttar Pradesh.

The Dalit vote played a major role in the BJP's poor show in Uttar Pradesh this time.

This suggests that the NDA has to run its next government like a heterodox coalition, and not as a majority-led party.

It may not be good for stability in politics or economics, but it reaffirms India's extreme diversity, where unity will always be tough to achieve.

For Narendra Modi and his party, this will be more than a sobering outcome. The message the voter has sent is clear: No leader is bigger than the electorate.

R Jagannathan is editorial director, Swarajya magazine

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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R Jagannathan
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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024