A great and famous victory was won on June 4, 2024. Not by this alliance or that over the other but by the people of India against fear, cynicism and apathy. After months, even years, of being led to believe that the anti-democratic forces of majoritarianism, autocracy and divisiveness were invincible, the election outcomes announced that day kindled new hope that change is indeed possible even in the face of the most daunting odds.

Many who had been paralysed by despair are now euphoric, with pundits of all persuasions proclaiming victory for their particular pet theory. It is a vote against hatred and its purveyors, some say. Against hubris, for the Constitution, for pluralism, or a strong Opposition, others claim. It is caste arithmetic, vote consolidation or economic distress, some assert.

Numerous wedge issues peeled off layers of support, or galvanised reaction – from the grotesque mismanagement of the Covd-19 pandemic, lynchings with impunity, farmers’ protests, the treatment of women wrestlers, favours to convicted rapists, the conflict in Manipur, the incarceration of activists, and the targeting of political opponents, to name a few.

Beyond all these, it is clear that treating citizens with contempt, belittling their capacity to comprehend issues, ignoring their concerns, assuming that they can be indefinitely swayed by appeals to faith or short-term economic sops does not make for a winning strategy or for voter loyalty. Apparently, you can’t fool all the people all the time.

When the dust settles, we’ll likely see that it was all of the above in some measure, somewhere.

What it is, without question, is a reprieve. A lease of life for our fragile democracy to recover ground that could have been lost for the foreseeable future. A breather to restore our democratic institutions and to begin rebuilding the bonds of compassion and fraternity that are our most precious asset.

Credit and gratitude for this remission are due to rural, minority and marginalised communities; activists who risked life, livelihood and reputation to educate, mobilise and organise; independent journalists who amplified the voices and issues that the mainstream media systematically excludes; lawyers who fought relentlessly to defend persecuted activists and to challenge undemocratic laws, fact-checkers who debunked the fire-hose of fake news; social media influencers who translated complex issues into memorable memes and video messages; politicians who resisted both carrots and sticks; and ordinary citizens who overcame propaganda, disillusionment and stultifying heat to chip away at the juggernaut we confronted.

And behemoth it was – an unholy alliance of crony capitalism and perverted nationalism, coupled with suborned institutions and compromised media, powered by vast sums of money and a veritable army of trolls, thugs and fanatics, inspired and protected by unprincipled leaders who were willing to deploy any and all means in their pursuit of power.

How long will the reprieve last and how can we best use the time and elbow room that it offers?

At Shaheen Bagh. Credit: AFP.

For politicians, it provides an opportunity to first, restore Parliamentary processes in some measure – from reclaiming the constitutional roles of the Speaker and Leader of the Opposition, to ensuring that legislation is subject to due process of debate and scrutiny, to instituting strong shadow ministries continually holding the regime to account and presenting policy alternatives, to creating caucuses representing the voices and issues that are most muted, including those of future generations.

Parties on both sides also have a window to rebalance centre-state equations and to institutionalise negotiating spaces rather than relying on bribery, bullying and blackmail. This term is also a boot-camp, to build and test trust between fractious political allies and to showcase to naysayers that the opposition coalition is more than an opportunistic cabal.

Finally, it presents a rare opportunity to strengthen democratic party structures at all levels and create outreach mechanisms to channel the energy, idealism and zeal that animates citizens – of all ages, genders, castes, classes, faiths and regions – to have impact. The penalty for failing on these counts, for permitting unbridled ambitions and self-serving agendas to prevail over collaboration, will seal many political fates forever.

For the mainstream media, a real opportunity now exists to reconsider the supine, shamelessly partisan modi operandi that have decimated its credibility and reputation. Independent media have a chance to strengthen the collaboration and solidarity they have demonstrated. And investors and philanthropists could offer not just a lifeline, but committed support to build sustainable institutions that are fit for the purpose of promoting and defending a vibrant democracy. Any philanthropist who is not seriously re-examining their strategy on this and other fronts risks sliding further down the slippery slope to irrelevance as a mere contractor to the state.

The institutions that are custodians of our democracy – the judiciary, the Election Commission, our human rights institutions, and various regulators – all have a fresh chance to repair some of the damage done by partisan appointments and pusillanimity and to ensure they are fully staffed, resourced and prepared to deliver their mandates. Civil society has fresh impetus to monitor and report on their performance, or lack thereof, and to mobilise citizens into seeking greater accountability.

Students recite the preamble to the Indian Constitution during an event organised to mark the International Day of Democracy at Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru in September 2023. Credit: PTI file photo.

The polarisation, hate speech, othering and hostility between communities that has been fostered and exacerbated over decades hasn’t been vanquished or even significantly dented. Almost 7 million more voters cast ballots in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2024 than did in 2019. Who are the 337 million voters that sat this election out? What might inspire the disillusioned to re-activate their citizenship in support of democracy and Constitutional values?

Where are the compelling counter-narratives to this ecosystem of hate? How can we amplify the social media influencers, stand-up comedians, grassroots theatre groups and musicians who best embody those narratives?

As tempting as it is to gloat, and revile those who supported the other side, can we muster the will to listen, understand and engage rather than judging or scorning? What spaces can we create to foster meaningful dialogue?

For civil society organisations, the existential dread that cast a pall over our sector has lifted just a little. Once we’ve taken some time to breathe deeply, can we channel our newfound optimism into building solidarity and co-ordination mechanisms that transcend divides of ideology, domain, geography and faith? It may well be our last chance to do so for a while.

Can we work collectively to shape a narrative that informs fellow citizens of our indispensability to democratic functioning, builds trust in the sector and invites them into our work as donors, volunteers, campaigners, advocates, creators and critics? Can we evolve to meet the expectations of a new generation that seeks action above words and wants to co-create the agenda, not just passively support one? How can NGOs support and amplify movements rather than competing with them? What can we do by way of mutual aid within the sector to prevent deeper insecurity and precarity?

For many of us as citizens, it is time to un-secede from the republic. These elections have clearly demonstrated that we see what we believe rather than believe what we see. It’s time to inform ourselves of the lives and concerns of fellow citizens rather than endlessly exchanging repartee in our WhatsApp filter bubbles.

To recognise ourselves as beneficiaries of the hard labour of grassroots communities and activists who fight the daily fight against insuperable odds at grave personal risk. And to educate ourselves by engaging these groups – serving rather than preaching, amplifying their voices to our friends, colleagues and families.

Going beyond liking and forwarding memes to supporting the work of independent media and activists with our time, money, skills, networks and empathy.

The people in whom we put too little faith have won us this continuance. Let us set aside our apathy, cynicism and inertia to do what needs to be urgently done: re-democratising India.

Ingrid Srinath is an independent expert on civil society and philanthropy.