Let us begin with an elementary distinction: The formal logic of numbers versus the political logic of the mandate. The former is a simple arithmetic exercise: Do the number of seats won by a party or a coalition add up to a simple majority in the legislature? It answers a legal question: Does the claimant have the statutory right to form a government? The latter demands a complex reasoning beyond the self-evident numbers: Who has won popular endorsement in the elections? It answers a normative question: Does the government enjoy popular sanction? This distinction explains the outcome of 2024: The BJP has the numbers to form the government, but it does not enjoy a popular mandate.

The formal logic of numbers is easy to settle. The BJP on its own is the largest single party in the new Lok Sabha, yet it does not have the 272 seats required to form the government. The National Democratic Alliance, a pre-electoral coalition, has 292 seats, well above the majority mark. Given the settled precedent, the President is justified in inviting the leader of the BJP parliamentary party to form the government. As long as it wins a vote of confidence in the new Lok Sabha — which is a formality now — there is no constitutional or legal hurdle or impropriety in the NDA forming the next government.

The political logic of the mandate takes us to a very different conclusion. Decoding the mandate requires us to answer a difficult question: Have the 60 crore plus voters endorsed Narendra Modi’s claim to lead a BJP government for the third term? Here are three simple yardsticks to measure whether the BJP has obtained the popular mandate in this election. One, how has the BJP fared compared to its performance in 2014 and 2019, the two elections where it clearly enjoyed a popular mandate? Two, how does it look in the mirror of its own claims and widespread expectations? Three, how does the BJP performance in this election look in the overall political context?

On the first count, the BJP’s claim to a mandate is unclear. Writing in this paper on the last day of polling, I had suggested the following thresholds to measure the BJP’s performance: While an improvement in its tally of 303 would be a victory, anything below 300 would be a moral defeat; A tally below 272 would be a political defeat for the BJP and below 250 would be a personal defeat for Modi. If that suggestion has any merit, this is clearly a moral, political and personal defeat for Modi in whose name the election was fought. Compared to the last elections, the BJP has lost 63 seats and has fallen 32 short of the majority mark. On the face of it, the decline in popular vote share is negligible: From 37.4 percent to 36.6 percent. But when we disaggregate these national-level seat and vote figures, we arrive at a clearer picture. The BJP’s gains (9.3 per cent votes as well as 20 seats) in the south-eastern coastal belt from Kerala to Odisha have softened the severe loss of votes (3.6 per cent) and seats (83 seats) in the rest of the country. It is easy to claim that the BJP has emerged as the largest single party; so did the Congress after what was rightly perceived as its humiliating defeat in 1989. At the very least, this is no ringing endorsement of the BJP or the NDA.

The truth is much harsher when seen in the context of the BJP’s own claim of “400 paar”, a self-fulfilling prophecy that was very much the centerpiece of the BJP’s campaign and news reporting by pliant newspaper headlines, loyal TV anchors and opinion polls. culminating in the curious number of 401 in the exit poll. We would never know how much the inevitability projected by the Modi campaign contributed to the BJP’s vote share (my guess is at least 2-3 per cent of the national votes), but we do know that despite this the NDA failed to cross 300. It is fair to say that the BJP did not get the mandate it asked for and expected.

Festive offer

These two criteria assume that 2024 was a normal electoral contest where a two-term incumbent was trying his luck for a difficult third term on a level playing ground. But everyone knows that it was anything but that.

This was the least free and fair national election in the history of independent India, where everything was stacked against the Opposition. Money, media, administrative machine and what have you — the ruling party enjoyed an infinite advantage over the Opposition. The Election Commission was blatantly partisan. And yet the people inflicted severe reversals on the ruling establishment. This is reminiscent of the popular mandate against the Congress in 1977, although even then Indira Gandhi had triumphed in the South. As a friend put it: “This was a David vs Goliath contest and David managed to give a bloody nose to Goliath”. While it would be silly to claim that the BJP has been vanquished in this election, it would be ostrich-like to deny that the BJP and Modi have suffered a defeat. They have the numbers in the Parliament, but not the popular mandate that they sought to steal.

Let there be no confusion about it. This election was about The Supreme Leader seeking post-facto public approval for the brick by brick dismantling of the republic and popular endorsement for the proposed mutilation of India’s constitutional democracy. The Indian public refused to give him that authorization. If the contest was a shade more fair, he would have been sitting in the opposition. Eventually, he has managed to reclaim the chair he so desperately needed but the public has denied him the iqbal (moral authority, prestige, legitimacy) that he so craved.

The writer is member, Swaraj India

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