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In her book How India Became Democratic, academic Ornit Shani described Independent India’s first election and its adoption of universal suffrage as a “stark act of decolonisation”, one that required “an immense power of imagination”.

India had had elections before. In 1920, British India held elections for both a central as well as provincial legislatures. But elections in colonial India were limited to a small number of wealthy voters. So Independent India first general election on October 25, 1951, was something special, as every adult Indian got the right to vote. Shani identifies this as the outcome of India’s freedom movement, which was mass-based.

India managed to keep this miracle going. Elections were held regularly and keenly fought. Popular participation was high and voters enthusiastic. As I’ve argued in a previous India Fix, unlike other democracies with strong checks and balances in the form of judiciaries and legislatures, in India, the only real check on the executive are voters.

The claim that elections are India’s greatest festival is a common, cringey cliche – but it is still true.

Given this incredible history, why then are the current general elections so lacklustre? The first phase is just a week away and the absence of buzz is palpable.

One-horse race

The first reason that strikes is just how long it is. The 2024 Lok Sabha election will be held in seven phases and will last for 44 days – more than six weeks. In contrast, the 1977 election – conducted before the invention of the internet – took all of four days. Why this election is so long drawn out compared to ones in the past is a question left unanswered by the Election Commission.

More troublingly, however, a significant reason for the lack of buzz around this election might be the idea that this is a done deal: it is almost certain that the Bharatiya Janata Party will win.

Where does this perception stem from?

For one, most opinion polling does show the BJP to be in pole position. However, as is well known, opinion polling in India is a rather inexact science. In 2004 for example, the BJP also went into the elections, with opinion polling marking it out as a surefire winner. The actual result: the Congress emerged the largest party and formed the government as part of an alliance. A smaller replay of this was seen in 2021, as almost every pollster predicted that the BJP would come to power in West Bengal. The actual result saw the BJP barely win a quarter of the seats in the Assembly even as the Trinmaool Congress romped home with nearly three-quarters of the House.

A related factor is the media capture by the BJP. As is well known, one of Modi’s biggest tactical successes since 2014 has been to defang the national media. So thorough has the Modi government been in this endeavour that of late it has even started to attack YouTube channels it sees as inimical to it. If all the India voter sees is pro-BJP cheering, it is hardly surprising that she considers the Hindutva party to be invincible.

This is not only smart media control, it is a powerful way to mould elections. Visible anger against a government needs to involve both public discontent as well as indications that the incumbent can be replaced – it is not invincible. With the latter, many people will not needlessly risk displaying anger against the powers that be.

In 2014, both existed, creating a perfect storm against the United Progressive Alliance government. In 2024, only the dissatisfaction does. As a result, we have the unusual existence of plenty of discontentment against the government as well as the idea that it is certain to return to power.

Playing field

Adding to this is a lacklustre opposition. The Opposition is hobbled by a number of factors out of its control: a severe lack of funding, allegations that institutional actors such as the Election Commission and even the judiciary are biased and, of course, a media environment actively hostile to it. Even then, however, these parties have punched below their weight, with a little organisation and even lack of sheer will to challenge the BJP.

This broken level field means the actual problems of the electorate are not finding voice in the election. A pre-poll survey by thinktank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti found that unemployment and inflation were the top two concerns among Indian voters. In fact, these two issues are so big, nearly half the electorate thinks that they are the primary policy concern at the moment. In contrast, only 8% of people list as their answer the new temple in Ayodhya, Hindutva’s primary vehicle of mobilisation for more than three decades.

Red flag

The fact that these economic concerns are not being reflected in the campaign despite being so major has resulted in voter disillusionment – leading to a tepid election atmosphere till now. The BJP, for example, has focussed its campaign on Hindutva, despite its low appeal among voters.

The lack of excitement around a general election might seem like a minor issue – but it’s not. If an election is not representing the concerns of most voters, it is not doing its primary job of being a feedback loop between citizens and the state. Whichever party wins the election, its hold on power would not be optimal. It would not reflect the actual mandate of the electorate but would be suboptimally influenced by factors such as money and media control – which should ideally not be factors at all.

India actually already has a precedent for this mismatch between mandate and majority. In 1984, the Congress won an astounding 414 seats in the Lok Sabha, driven by a sympathy vote after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Since it was not an actual vote for the government, in spite of this massive number, however, the Rajiv Gandhi ministry that was formed after this was beset with political problems and, ironically, heralded the crumbling of the Congress party.