A billion voters #2024Elections: X, Y and W factors

In what is billed as the world’s largest election, an estimated one billion Indians—in a population of 1.431 billion—will be eligible to exercise their democratic right.
A man leaves after casting his vote during the third phase of 2019 general election in Gauhati. (File Photo | AP)
A man leaves after casting his vote during the third phase of 2019 general election in Gauhati. (File Photo | AP)

The 2024 Lok Sabha polls will set a new world record. In what is billed as the world’s largest election, an estimated one billion Indians—in a population of 1.431 billion—will be eligible to exercise their democratic right.

Like the festival of democracy is, as yet, a few months away, but the hashtag #2024Elections is already attracting attention. The government’s decision to announce a five-day special session of parliament has triggered a fiesta of speculation. The government has released an agenda: a discussion on the parliamentary journey of seventy-five years and a Bill to appoint the new Chief Election Commissioner, among other things. But the opposition parties are not convinced and the cognoscenti suspect that surprises are in store.

Like the X factor setting the trajectory of political sentiments will be unveiled at the special session. Ideas under speculation include reprioritising ‘Bharat’ over ‘India’, a uniform civil code Bill, a proposal for ‘one nation, one election’, a women’s reservation Bill, quota for women in government jobs, and submission of the Rohini Commission report has fuelled a buzz on a new OBC quota. Nobody knows for sure. The one predictable facet of the Modi regime has been its ability to spring surprises.

Like the air is thick with hypotheses. One theory is that the move for simultaneous polls is catalysed by an angst about possible outcomes in the assembly polls coming up. The thesis doesn’t quite pass Karl Popper’s principle of falsification. In the 2018 assembly polls, the Congress won in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won twenty-three of the twenty-five seats in Rajasthan, twenty-eight of the twenty-nine in Madhya Pradesh, and nine of the eleven in Chhattisgarh.

Like the received wisdom among the opposition parties is that India’s response to the Pulwama terror attack shifted the momentum in 2019. To weigh this, it would be useful to review the verdicts of 1965 and 1999. India decisively won the 1965 war, but in 1967, the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha was down by over seventy-five seats and it was booted out in eight states.

Like you could say immediacy matters. In 1999, India went to the polls following the one-vote defeat of the Vajpayee government in parliament after the Kargil war. Notwithstanding the victory in the war, the BJP’s tally remained at the one hundred and eighty-two it had won in 1998. One explanation is the schism within the party in Uttar Pradesh, where its tally slid from fifty-eight to twenty-nine. The Congress, though, tumbled from one hundred and forty-one to one hundred and fourteen seats.

Like history reveals that a confluence of competing factors influence electoral outcomes. The credibility of popular theories is challenged by counterfactuals. It is true that the performance of the economy does inform voters and influence voting intent. But the double-digit growth in 1988 didn’t help the Congress in 1989 and liberalisation didn’t pay off in 1996; the NDA lost in 2004 despite the India Shining campaign.

Like the Y factor in 2024 would be the youth vote. It is estimated that over 90 million new voters will be eligible next year. Both the Congress and the BJP are wooing the youth because the Y factor matters. The BJP’s victory in 2014, the first majority mandate in 25 years, was powered by youth aspirations and Narendra Modi’s presentation of the Gujarat model. The 2019 mandate was fuelled by the notion of a decisive government. It is true that pride matters—and the G20 and Chandrayaan successes would catalyse sentiments—there is no disputing aspiration.

Like the angst among the youth about employment and their future has been consistently highlighted in opinion polls. It is illuminated by the quota stirs, the quest for government jobs, and is underlined by the job melas organised by the government. The first-time voter in 2024 would barely know past governments and would lack a reference point. The youngster who first voted in 2014 will be around 28 and will measure his vote on met and unmet expectations. How the youth perceive their circumstances now and how they are likely to vote merits a major opinion poll.

Like the most significant force in 2024 is likely to be the W factor—the woman voter. Women’s turnout has zoomed over the last two decades. At the 2019 election, women voters at 67.18 percent outnumbered men at 67.01 percent. What is significant is that women are emerging as the new kingmakers in assembly polls across the country.

Like it is unsurprising that states are racing to launch schemes to transfer money directly to women—the Kalaignar Magalir Urimai Thogai Thittam in Tamil Nadu, the Gruha Lakshmi scheme in Karnataka, and the Ladli Behana scheme in Madhya Pradesh. It is also not a surprise that the Opposition is worried that Modi might modify the mood by stealing a march on women’s reservation.

Like there is reason to hope that the MPs will mark seventy-five years of parliamentary democracy with a compelling debate on competing ideas. It will be scarcely surprising, though, if it morphs into a carnival of ricocheting rhetoric.

What is inescapable is that the events of the week will set the tone for #2024Elections.

Shankkar Aiyar

Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India

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