India’s BJP hangs on to power but loses overall control. Picture shows NDTV coverageNDTV coverage of the post-election process. [source: NDTV 5 June 2024]

[This article first appeared on the ‘Riding the Elephant’ website and has been shared with the Round Table website with the kind permission of the author. Views expressed do not reflect the position of the editorial board.]

Big setback for Modi’s aim to establish himself as invincible leader

India will now have a coalition government

Narendra Modi is set to become India’s prime minister for a third term following counting of votes in the country’s mammoth general election. But the face of Indian politics has changed dramatically with an unexpected resurgence of opposition regional parties and the Gandhi-led Congress Party, and declining support for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi will be sworn in as prime minister on Saturday but his dreams of winning a dominant personal victory as a supreme leader have been shattered in one of the most unexpected reversals for many years.

The result that proves the strength and power of India’s often criticised parliamentary democracy with 642m voters in this election. It also marks the failure of Modi’s ambition to remove the Congress party and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty leadership from active politics.

Modi’s personal pitch of projecting himself with an almost priestly Hinduism religious role seems to have failed to attract votes – it even failed in the constituency that contains the Ayodhya temple where he presided in January and where the BJP parliamentary candidate lost to the state-based Samajwadi Party.

The results show the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with 293 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), and 232 for the I.N.D.I.A grouping that includes the Congress party. Other parties have 19 seats.

Significantly, these figures include the BJP with 240 seats, down 63 from 303 in the 2019 election, and 99 for Congress, up 47 from 2019. There was only a 1% drop in the BJP’s vote share but the cooperation between the opposition parties led to the large loss of beats

The BJP has therefore failed to reach the 274 majority mark so needs the active support of its coalition partners for the first time since it came to power in 2014. That will pose a personal test for Modi, who has run a centrally controlled government from his prime minister’s office with little notice being taken of alliance partners or other interests.

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There were some suggestions as the results emerged that two regional coalition partners might switch to support the I.N.D.I.A, which would have removed the NDA’s majority and could have prevented Modi forming the government. That however seems not to be happening. The parties are Bihar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) led by Nitish Kumar, which looks like getting 12 seats, and Andhra Pradesh’s Telegu Desam led by Chandrababu Naidu with 16. Both leaders have at different times supported and not supported the BJP, but both will attend a meeting of NDA leaders in Delhi today (June 5).

The overall result vindicates the hopes of Modi’s opponents that one day the political pendulum would swing against harsh autocratic Hindu nationalism. Till today, that seemed only a hope for the somewhat distant future – scarcely anyone had expected it to happen in this election.

Part of the BJP’s problem was that there was no clear focus in its election campaign, apart from the presence of Modi, and there was a lack of firm polices for the future. This means that local issues and the role of regional parties became important in many constituencies. It was also the first time that Modi had faced a united opposition. Turn-out was low compared with earlier elections, suggesting that some BJP supporters had not voted, partly because they felt that the government had not done enough to boost employment and curb price increases of basic goods. It is also possible that many voters did not like extreme anti-Muslim tilt of Modi’s campaigning.

It also seems that the Modi wave that began in 2014 may have peaked. In his own constituency of Varanasi, he won with a majority of just 152,513 votes, – down from 471,000 in 2019.

“Big decisions”

Modi put as brave a face as he could on the losses and is presenting the result as a victory for Indian democracy and a success for the BJP winning a rare third consecutive term with a sizeable majority over the I.N.D.I.A. Speaking alongside grim-faced fellow BJP leaders at a party rally when the results were clear, he said the government would now write a “new chapter of big decisions”.

That underlines the point that, while he might feel less confident about pushing Hindu nationalism and side-lining Muslims as a religious minority, and will be slowed down on that by coalition partners, he will now want to do more on economic reforms, social support systems for the poor, attracting foreign investment and building new technology-oriented industries. Some observers however suggest that he may not feel strong enough to carry out delayed and controversial reforms such as privatisation of state industries and changing labour practices.

In addition to failing to establish the country-wide endorsement for his leadership, Modi also failed to galvanise seat-winning support in southern states where he wanted the BJP to establish a presence. The BJP raised its percentage of the vote, but won only one seat in Kerala and none in Tamil Nadu. The BJP did however repeat its past success in Delhi where it won all the seven parliamentary seats, as it did in 2019.

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In the state assembly election in Orissa, it won control for the first time, pushing out the state-level Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik who has been chief minister for 24 consecutive years, the second longest of any chief minister in the country.

The BJP’s biggest setbacks that helped to swing the overall result came in two states. The main surprise was Uttar Pradesh where the I.N.D.I.A won 43 parliamentary seats out of a total of 80, whereas the NDA has only 36, down from 64 in 2019. This is unexpected because Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu priest-turned-chief minister, was reported to have built a good image for the BJP by strengthening law and order and boosting both development projects and care for the poor.

The result is a victory for Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the UP-based Samajwadi Party, working with Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party whose political future looks more assured than it has for many years.

Observers suggest that Yadav and Gandhi successfully worried members of India’s lowest castes that reservation schemes which provide them with jobs and other advantages might be cancelled by the Modi government amending the constitution.

In West Bengal, the reigning chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress saw off the NDA challenge and her party won 29 of the 42 parliamentary seats compared with the BJP’s 12. This is a major setback for Modi who wanted to establish the BJP as a significant political force in the state.

The overall result is specially surprising coming after exit polls published when voting ended on June 1. These indicated a massive swing in favour of the BJP with between 355 and 380 seats. That led to a surge on the Indian stock market with prices reaching record levels and a crash when the actual results began to appear today.

Whether the markets needed to be worried depends on how well Modi runs the coalition and carries the BJP’s allies with him on plans for economic reform. The results will not impede the government’s plans if, as Modi has said, they lead to renewed efforts to continue India’s development as the world’s third largest economy.

John Elliott is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

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