2024 General Elections: Shaping the Future

What is the meaning of ‘mandate’ within India’s constitutional and political schema? Prof. Arun Kumar meditates on this question.

Modi Wins Third Term Amidst Sobering Election Results

A chastened Narendra Modi has become the Prime Minister of India for a third time. He, along with his large cabinet, took oath on June 9. The mood was sombre, as during the victory celebration at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters on June 4, because the realisation had dawned that a much diminished National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would form the next government.

The BJP’s loss of majority and its dependence on regional alliance partners to run the government has altered the power dynamics. This would be true in spite of Modi having his way in the cabinet formation.

The reason is the denting of his image of invincibility which has emboldened others to speak up. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief has criticised the divisive campaign and stated that the opposition is not an enemy.

Would Modi modify his expectations? He would have to carry others with him— whether they be from the BJP, RSS or the coalition partners or the opposition. Consultations within the cabinet would have to be more meaningful and not based on diktat.

The BJP’s loss of majority and its dependence on regional alliance partners to run the government has altered the power dynamics.

Ministries may have a greater degree of autonomy from the all-powerful Prime Minister’s office (PMO). What was done during demonetisation is unlikely to happen again. At that time, Modi is on record for saying that when he made the decision public, his own cabinet colleagues were hearing of it for the first time.

It was never clarified whether the finance minister was consulted on such a momentous decision.

Meaning of mandate

So, what is it that Modi would be able to do? Experts talk of a mandate of a government but that is not spelt out. So what is meant by a mandate? It is the power given to the winning party in an election to carry forward a programme.

Each party has a manifesto on the basis of which it is supposed to fight the elections. It spells out a programme which the party promises to implement if voted to power. But the winning parties seldom implement the programme on attaining power. They implement bits and pieces of it. In other words, the programme for which the voters voted for the winning party remains largely unfulfilled.

But do voters vote for the entire manifesto or elements of it? They may have a strong preference for some items but may be indifferent towards other promises in the manifesto.

This introduces an ambiguity in the meaning of a mandate. Further, the majority of the people seldom vote for the winning party. In India, the winning party has been receiving a vote share of between 30 percent and 40 percent. So, 60 percent to 70 percent of voters do not vote for the ruling party’s manifesto.

Actually, manifestos of parties are seldom read or understood by the public. So, not only do the voters voting for the winning party not vote for the full manifesto, a majority of the voters in the country do not support the ruling party’s core agenda.

Given the public apathy about the manifestos and vote being cast for a limited programme, does it imply that a ruling party can do pretty much what it wishes to, even if the majority did not explicitly or implicitly vote for many of the policies it implements?

That goes against the meaning of a mandate— the power given by the public to carry forward a programme. Also, since the majority did not vote for the winning party, can it go against the wishes of the majority of the voters and claim that it is fulfilling its mandate? Clearly not.

Each party has a manifesto on the basis of which it is supposed to fight the elections.

But then the ruling party can never carry forward its own programme since a majority did not vote for it. So, what can it do?

Mandate is in the totality

The meaning of a mandate has to be understood in its totality, along with the vote that the opposition got. And that vote may not be for the policies the ruling party wants to implement. This is democracy— a multiplicity of views exist on how society is to be run.

If the vote gives the mandate, it is not just for the ruling party but also for the programme proposed by the opposition and so its views also ought to be accommodated.

In reality, the ruling party does not even carry forward its own manifesto agenda. Which manifesto since independence has not promised elimination of poverty, illiteracy and ill-health? But, 75 years after independence and with the 18th general elections just completed, why do the vast majority of people remain poor, have acute health issues and get very poor education, if they get it?

Obviously, this part of the manifesto is not taken seriously— it is not a part of the priority for fulfilling the mandate. Often, the argument against pro-poor policies has been that they would dissuade foreign investment. But when has the mandate been to get foreign investment at the expense of pro-poor policies.

So, critical tangible parts of the mandate have remained unfulfilled. Whichever be the ruling party, the focus has been on appeasing the vested interests that finance political parties. Electoral bonds have provided only a glimpse of the quid pro quo.

Lip service is paid to the needs of the poor. Through clever marketing and manipulation of data it is claimed that poverty has been almost eliminated in India and that too in the pandemic year of 2020–21 when the economy and the poor went into a tailspin.

Even if free distribution of foodgrains reduced extreme poverty, poverty persists since access to basics of life such as water, energy, education and health remain inadequate for the majority.

The tone of the elite is condescending— the marginalised should be grateful for what they have got since independence.

But do voters vote for the entire manifesto or elements of it? They may have a strong preference for some items but may be indifferent towards other promises in the manifesto.

Since 2014, Modi has had a majority and he could have fulfilled the promises to the marginalised. The opposite has happened. Policies have increased the difficulties of the marginalised, whether due to demonetisation or the Goods and Services Tax (GST) or the sudden lockdown. Worse, democracy has been weakened which will prevent the marginalised from raising their voice.

Intangible aspects of the mandate

There are intangible aspects of policy with long-term consequences for society, especially for the marginalised. These relate to representation and democracy. If these weaken, the voice of the marginalised gets weakened and reduces their capacity to mould the mandate. This strengthens vested interests.

Has society ever given the mandate to a ruling party to exploit the existing divisions in the society to consolidate its hold over power? Power has been cynically used. Mandate has also not been to weaken the institutions of democracy such as the parliament and the judiciary.

People have also not voted for the Prime Minister to act autocratically, concentrate power in the PMO and not to consult widely even within his cabinet and the party. Mandate has not been to erode the autonomy of institutions of higher learning and weaken the base of research in the country.

These unstated intangibles have been used by powerful Prime Ministers to consolidate their power. In a complex society such as India, these features lead to major mistakes and grave setbacks to society.

In India, a coalition that forces a Prime Minister to consult widely and take into account diverse opinions is more suited to fulfilling the mandate of the people. There can accidentally be a Prime Minister who respects democracy and carries everyone with her. But, the nation cannot depend on that. A numerically strong opposition representing a diversity of views is another check against the subversion of the mandate.

In brief, in India, the mandate is contrived by the ruling party since the majority vote for some aspect of their manifesto and not the whole. Many of the promises go unfulfilled.

The mandate needs to take into account not just the vote for the ruling party but also what the majority of the voters vote for.

The mandate needs to take into account not just the vote for the ruling party but also what the majority of the voters vote for. If the totality of the votes and the manifestos are taken into account, the mandate has been to rapidly improve the lot of the vast numbers of the marginalised.

Instead of this, policies to promote vested interests have been pursued given the domination of Modi in his party, his majority in the Parliament and the weakness of the opposition.

Is all this set to change since the BJP does not have a majority in the Parliament and there is a resurgent opposition espousing ‘justice’ in society?

Arun Kumar is a Retired Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of `Demonetization and Black Economy’ (2018, Penguin Random House). 

The article was first published in The Leaflet as ‘General elections 2024: What is the mandate?‘ on June 11, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more from the author at:

India’s Foreign Policy Objectives under Modi’s Third Tenure

Preventing Democratic Backsliding Isn’t the Same as Securing Democracy

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Mansi Garg, a Visiting Researcher and Assistant Editor at IMPRI.

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    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Arun Kumar

    Arun Kumar, Malcolm S Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi and author of ‘Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of the Coronavirus and the Road Ahead‘.

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