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For a decade now, a propaganda machine primed to ruthlessness by the ruling regime and a mainstream media devoted to drumming up the invincibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held large parts of the country in their grip.

But somewhere during a long, gruelling Lok Sabha election, between triumph and defeat, between media owners calling the polls “mehez ek formality”, merely a formality, and fact-checking YouTubers, a space opened up.

While the prime minister’s high-decibel bigoted rhetoric droned on, as reporters hit the ground, many of us began to hear grumbling, anger – even scorn.

The voices of ordinary voters complaining about joblessness and the grind of poverty, expressing their anxiety about unchecked, god-like power began to travel wider – and were often bolder than most critiques we have heard in the last 10 years.

Here’s just a sample of what surfaced in ground reports that I read. “They will turn our country into Saudi Arabia, where we will have no portal to complain or protest,” a voter in Rajasthan told The Hindu’s Sobhana Nair, complaining about an ek-tarfa or one-sided sarkar.

“Modi said he was from a poor family and would work for poor people. He made a fool of us, clearly,” a 26-year-old Maurya voter from Uttar Pradesh told my colleague, Supriya Sharma.

This dismissal came from a Dalit voter in Barabanki: “Modi ji talks rubbish. He says if Congress wins, it will take your buffalo away.”

Several reporters not only picked up the ebbing appeal of the construction of the temple in Ayodhya, but also the displeasure at the hubris which the Bharatiya Janata Party claimed to have delivered Ram to the party’s labharthis, as if the deity was another welfare scheme. “A man who does politics in the name of dharma [religion] is the biggest adharmi [traitor to the faith],” the Maurya voter asserted.

In Ghosi, Munna Saini, a member of an OBC community, flared up at the mention of the BJP’s claims over the temple. “He [Modi] did not give birth to Ram, he is because of Ram,” he told Nair.

Another voter in Varanasi asked: “Modiji has been lying to us. Can the Ram mandir feed hungry stomachs? Can abusing Muslims build factories?”

Even a traditional BJP supporter in Faizabad backing Modi as prime minister called him “andhon mein kana raja”. A one-eyed king in a land of the blind.

Neither fury nor irreverence nor sarcasm against elected leaders should surprise in a democracy, of course. But, after years of being told that such questions do not matter to the people, something seemed to shift and loosen.

The Narendra Modi government has, over the last decade, driven a totalising project to flatten all of India’s diversity. To delegitimise all differences and resistance as a conspiracy against the nation. To stun all of us into obsequious worshippers of the spectacle of power.

Most of the media responded to this powerful force by either actively collaborating with the government, or toning down their adversarial news instincts. Those who did not faced brazen intimidation, morning raids, arrests and imprisonment.

The Modi government may not have succeeded entirely but such was its power that in a certain echo chamber, doubt has been buried at the altar of deference. Even disbelievers had forgotten that there was an expiry date to enchantment.

The arguments of voters that we heard, critiquing the BJP for its authoritarianism and use of religiosity, tell us otherwise. It is, most importantly, a reminder to the BJP that the people have not forgotten their role as a rein on power. To the Opposition, it asks that they can and need to dig in their heels in the Hindi heartland, instead of buying into the binary of a progressive south and a backward north. Finally, it is a signal to large sections of the media that they can draw courage for journalism from ordinary voters.

Those voices counsel patience and forbid despair – and that would have been true even if the Lok Sabha results were different. As Rahul Gandhi would know, sometimes facts and figures, ideas and arguments need time to take root – sometimes, they need to go on a long, meandering yatra to take on the ring of truth.

In this election, for instance, the reporting done by several organisations, amplified by Dhruv Rathee and Ravish Kumar, found a way to the people.

Five years ago, copies of the Constitution were used by the women of Shaheen Bagh to assert their citizenship against the BJP’s politics of disenfranchisement. That movement for civil rights was brutally shut down.

Even after, invocations of the Constitution were dismissed as liberal affectations of an elite out of touch with “civilisational” instincts of India’s Hindus.

But the Constitution became an electoral issue for the first time because voters – especially among Dalit communities – panicked at the BJP’s gluttonous hunger for “400 paar” seats. They saw in that ambition a threat to reservations, which are already losing efficacy as government jobs shrink.

The BJP alleged that this was Opposition propaganda, though some of its leaders had indeed called for a massive mandate to change the Constitution.

Politically speaking, it is hard to foresee a party that has broad-based the appeal of Hindutva to include many Bahujan communities to risk its mass voter base by such an exercise.

But that allegation struck – because Modi’s projection of untrammelled power, his decimation of adversaries, the misuse of investigative agencies has made the voter feel smaller, more insecure than she has in the past.

This resurgence of doubt is a response to the caving in of so many institutions to the cult of Modi.

That cult found an apt expression in the prime minister’s sense that he has begun to doubt he was a “biological being”. Indeed, an Opposition-mukt polity – the stated desire of the BJP – or the mockery of the election process as we saw in Surat and Indore is an unnatural, non-biological state in a democracy.

For the Opposition – which wise meme-lords rightfully say has pulled off a victory in loss – the task is to return us to the messy, biological world of democracy, defeats and contestations.

Read Scroll’s 2024 Lok Sabha elections coverage here.