Modi’s Bitter Victory: BJP’s Surprising Setback Shocks Indian Politics

Having casted 642 million votes in 44 days, the largest-ever democratic election ended on June 4, 2024, shocking both India’s political elites and the entire international scene. Indeed, despite Narendra Modi’s third term confirmation, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) performed significantly below projections of winning 400 coalition seats in the Lok Sabha. It obtained only 240 seats, 32 below the required number to ensure absolute majority. This marked a striking moment in Indian politics: the comeback of coalition governments.

The BJP’s need to rely on local parties’ support in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and its loss of a supermajority, transformed Modi’s “glorious day” – as he asserted after the results – into a bitter victory. He was well aware of the failure of his populist vision for a Hindu-first nation and of his personal brand. As argued by Dr. Chietigj Bajpaee, Senior Research Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme, “given Modi’s central role as the face of the party during the election, the disappointing result has damaged the Modi brand”, who will need to “reinvent himself” to re-establish his decade-long leadership.

However, while the winners mourned their disappointing victory, the Congress-led INDIA coalition celebrated their defeat, notably outperforming the projections of exit polls and pre-election surveys. The opposition hailed its 234 seats as a triumph of pluralism and democracy, as highlighted by Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who exclaimed “this is a mandate in defence of the Constitution of India… and (a mandate) to save democracy”. Moreover,  Indian National Congress lawmaker Rahul Gandhi, the opposition leader who had been ridiculed by Modi and by many analysts, asserted himself as a persuasive competitor who undermined “the bubble of Modi’s authority”, who turned out not to be “the indomitable vehicle for History … [but] just another politician, cut to size by the people”, as political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta reported.

Furthermore, these results are all the more surprising given the controversial political climate in which they took place. In fact, although the election was nominally free, “this was not a normal contest”, as Indian activist Yogendra Yadav emphasised. These elections took place in a semi-authoritarian country. Opposition leaders – such as Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, have been arrested, the main opposition party’s bank accounts have been frozen, and the media sided almost entirely with the government.

Therefore, this unexpected support for the INDIA coalition set an important lesson for countries all over the world: despite significant institutional challenges, in a full-fledged democracy the power of the people’s vote cannot be undermined, nor can its sovereignty be revoked.

Modi’s ambitious program, which focused on Hindu nationalism, revoking the autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir, and the supposed maintenance of “stable” governance, did not resonate with voters more interested in local issues. People’s concerns with unemployment, inflation, and the BJP’s divisive views on ethnicity and religion defeated Modi in major states that had always strongly backed him, such as the nation’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and in Banswara, in the western state of Rajasthan, where he referred to the Muslim population as “infiltrators”.

The implications of this new political reality in the Lok Sabha will have a major impact on the policymaking process, due to the number of parliamentary seats obtained by the opposition, which will hamper the BJP’s more controversial and identity-driven policies, along with its politically sensitive economic reforms. However, although a competitive democratic system has been re-affirmed, highlighting Indian democracy’s strength and resilience, a more accurate picture will be drawn only after the results of state elections, 5 of which will take place in the next 14 months. These will also have a substantial impact on India’s political and institutional landscape– and may tip the balance in favour of  Modi’s BJP or the INDIA opposition coalition.

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