The midsummer national Indian elections of 2024 were the most consequential in India’s journey of 74 years as a republic.

The decade-long leadership of Narendra Modi had thrust India to the brink of an abyss. At stake in the 2024 contest was not just the fate of competing political parties and leaders. The results of the elections would decide if the India imagined in the freedom struggle and pledged in the Constitution would survive.

The choices of the Indian people would determine if India would hold true to its constitutional promises: of parliamentary democracy; of freedom of dissent and religion; of equal citizenship for people of all faiths, castes and identities; and of securing for every citizen without discrimination justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Modi decade was marked by a tacit repudiation of the Constitution, powered by Hindutva triumphalism that rapidly transformed the country into a republic of hate and fear. India’s 200 million Muslims were targeted routinely with genocidal hate speech and an epidemic of hate lynching, inter-religious marriages were effectively criminalised, and citizenship law amendments threatened their equal citizenship.

Dissenters were charged with grave crimes and many jailed for years without trial. India evolved into an oligarchy more unequal even than in colonial times. All institutions of democracy including the judiciary, the civil services and the media were enfeebled, the liberal arts university substantially decimated and civil society majorly intimidated into silence.

Casting away pretentions

In the 2024 election campaign, Prime Minister Modi cast away all pretentions and constraints and resorted to the coarse language against Muslim citizens of a street bigot. He called them infiltrators, and alleged they deliberately breed large families and wage a variety of jihads. He charged the opposition Congress with conspiracies to snatch the jewellery and wealth of Hindus to distribute to Muslims. Just months before the campaign, he had presided over the consecration of a grand temple to Ram in Ayodhya at the site where three decades earlier a Hindu militant mob had pulled down a mosque.

Reflecting on the dark decade of mass slaughter and hate in Germany under Hitler, pacifist German pastor Friedrich Schorlemmer held out this caution for all peoples in all lands. “No country, no culture, no religion”, he warned, “is immune to falling into the abyss into which we fell [in Nazi Germany]. And once it begins, there will always be people who shut down their conscience and side with the strongman.”

If the people of India had chosen to give Narendra Modi another decisive mandate to rule India for another five years, the country would have hurtled deep into the very abyss that pastor Schorlemmer warned of. Engulfed in hate and fear, more and more people would be willing to shut down their conscience and wave flags of hate with the strongman. The freedoms of both conscience and faith would be crushed. India would become a dangerous place to be either a minority or a dissenter. India’s secular democracy would give way to an authoritarian religious state.

When the 2024 votes were counted, it became clear that it was metropolitan and urban India that still most supported Modi. Masses of the less privileged Indian people had turned away from him. The working-class voters, farmers, informal workers, women and youth was not swayed by this barrage of religious hate. They chose instead to vote against joblessness, runaway inflation, caste and religious oppression, and denials of public services, including health care, education and public transport. By so doing, they pulled the country back from the precipice where it was tottering.

As the election results poured in, messages of relief and hope from friends began to crowd my phone. One friend wrote, “I can’t believe that we have begun the process of getting our country back.” Another –“All is not lost yet. What a relief! What a feeling!” “Many lessons on what you can and can’t do in a country. You can’t pit people against one another, intimidate everyone and so much more. So proud of our people.” Or on a more restrained note, “It does look like our people have said enough is enough in their own way”, “We can now breathe, just about!”

My heart alit, I still could not ignore the irony that we found both relief and hope in an election outcome that gave the BJP-led alliance of parties a majority in parliament. But as another friend wrote, “In 2024, the Indian people have given a verdict that will be remembered for a very long time in Indian politics. They have given the BJP and partners a victory that feels like a defeat. They have given the Congress alliance a defeat that feels like a victory.”

Our relief was first because even if Modi continues as prime minister, the Indian voter has ensured that the era of Modi as an untramelled dictator is over. In the ten years of his leadership, he took a series of drastic (and often disastrous) decisions that disrupted the lives of nearly a billion and a half people, but without any open public consultation – not with his cabinet colleagues, the chief ministers, parliament, expert groups or citizens.

These decisions included the overnight demonetisation of 86% of the county’s currency; enforcing a nation-wide lockdown at four hours’ notice with some of the world’s smallest relief packages; changes in citizenship laws by introducing the filter of religion for the first time; and the selective use of apex investigation agencies against senior politicians, journalists, academics and activists. This will now no longer be possible. He will have to consult at least with his alliance partners, and answer to a much more strengthened opposition in parliament.

Protecting the Constitution

Second, changes that in the Constitution and law that abridged or diluted the country’s federal secular democratic constitution will not be possible. It was widely speculated that if the BJP won a two-thirds majority, it could remove the word “secular” and also provisions for minority rights’ protections from the constitution; dilute reservations for Dalits and Adivasis; order a nation-wide National Register of Citizens; legislate a Uniform Civil Code; arrange for building temples at the sites of mosques in Mathura and Varanasi; and implement the idea of One-Nation-One- Election. I believe that the BJP’s alliance partners and an energised opposition will not allow these to come about.

More complicated is the question of whether Modi as the head of a coalition government would continue the widespread misuse of apex federal investigation agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate to hound opposition political leaders and dissenters in the media, academia and civil society. Much would depend on who handles the powerful Union Home Ministry in the new government.

If Modi’s most trusted collaborator Amit Shah continues to hold this office, then the misuse of these federal agencies may continue. But if the alliance partners are anxious that these agencies may be turned against them at some stage, they may bargain for separating Shah from this office, and for building systems of accountability for the ways these agencies exercise power.

To restore a democratic climate of public debate and dissent with state policies and actions, the country would also need to see a revival of various democratic institutions, including the judiciary, the civil services and police, and the media. Would an ebbing of the climate of fear lead to greater fairness and integrity in the actions of each of these? Would judges and policepersons finally rediscover their conscience and journalists their voice? Much would depend on the extent to which these institutions have been penetrated with persons committed to the ideology of the Hindu Right.

Two recent High Court judges announced after they demitted office their ideological fidelity to the RSS. If these institutions have functioned in partisan ways in the Modi years because of the fear of consequences or for career advancement, a weakened BJP in power may remedy some of this. But if public officials are ideologically motivated, then correctives are much harder. These will have to be enforced only through greater peer and citizen vigilance.

I wonder also what implications the changes in the Union government would have to correct the extreme rights violations that were made by the outgoing government. These are many political prisoners incarcerated for several years without trial. There are amendments in laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Prevention of Money Laundering Act that enable such extended jail without trial or conviction.

There are a series of new criminal law and procedure codes that were passed again without extensive debate in parliament or with lawyers and human rights practitioners. Once again, will judges find belatedly their conscience to correct these? Will the revived Opposition, in consultation possibly with ideologically compatible parties that form the ruling alliance, seek the revision or abrogation of these in parliament?

I am most worried about the paramount crisis of Indian democracy under the Modi years, and this is the fierce and sustained targeting by both religious and vigilante groups that enjoy state support and encouragement, and by the state itself, of India’s Muslim citizens, and through this the destruction of the core constitutional commitment of equal citizenship rights of all citizens of all faiths. This is the core ideological project of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the ideological mentor of the BJP.

It is entirely unlikely that a BJP government, even one that leads an alliance, will compromise with what its central mission. It is sobering to observe that the vote share of the BJP remains stable at around 38%, nearly as high as it was in 2019, and many points higher than in 2014.

Abiding hope

It is true that the majority of Indian voters – around six out of ten – have not endorsed in the elections of 2024 the anti-Muslim project of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This is a source of abiding hope. I also draw optimism in particular from two election results. One is the defeat of the BJP candidate in Faizabad, the site of the Ayodhya temple, and that too by a Dalit candidate, because Ayodhya lies at the epicentre of the ideological project of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And the other is the defeat of the BJP in Inner Manipur, because in a state torn apart by a civil war, the majority Meitei people have also voted against the politics of violence and hate.

The Indian voters have in these ways dispersed some of the dark clouds that had gathered over the land. We take heart from the speckled light that pierces the darkness, and the air of freedom.

But darkness can quickly gather again. We only need to look at Nazi Germany, at Bosnia, at Rwanda, at Pakistan, to recognise that the mass targeting with hate and violence of a minority is enabled by a partisan state, by ideologically committed militias and civilian cadres, and the silent indifference of a many.

The election results of 2024 have not erased the dangers of fascism. They have pushed back its tidal waves by denting the power of an authoritarian state powered by an ideology of anti-minority hate. But the militia and cadres of the Hindu Right remain powerful and motivated.

A day must come when the silent majority breaks its silences and stands in resolute solidarity with its oppressed compatriots of oppressed religions and castes. The ideological project of hate thrives in hearts and minds. It is only in hearts and minds that it can be defeated. This is the most important battle of our age.

Harsh Mander, writer, peace and rights worker, researcher and teacher, leads the campaign Karwan e Mohabbat for justice and solidarity with survivors of hate violence. His latest book Fatal Accidents of Birth is in book stores.