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5 June 2024

India chooses political instability over Modi

The country will now be governed by a coalition, rather than with an iron fist.

By Shruti Kapila

Narendra Modi may have won a third term as prime minister, but he has lost the country. In a stunning verdict on 4 June, Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been denied a simple majority. They have failed to win enough support to form the national government by themselves. Despite a surge of support, the opposition INDIA alliance led by the Congress Party and its leader Rahul Gandhi didn’t win enough votes to stake a claim on the government. At this moment, Delhi is gripped not only by uncertainty but also a new-found excitement at the return to old-style political jockeying. The country will have a coalition government. Overnight, the pall of suffocation created by a decade of Modi’s strongman style, which demanded total obedience to him and his authority, has lifted.

The scale of Modi’s loss may appear meagre – his vote share dropped from 37.4 per cent to 36.6 per cent – but its effect is monumental. Because the prime minister suffered the greatest losses in India’s Hindi heartland that has long been the bastion of his party’s ideology of Hindu nationalism, the result suggests the electorate is far from aligned with making India a Hindu-first polity. Strikingly, the city of Ayodhya which only a few months ago witnessed the consecration of the Ram Temple by Modi himself, has voted in a candidate from the opposition benches. Together, people from lower castes, the unemployed and Muslims have halted Modi’s ambitions to mould India into a one-party state.

It was clear after the first few hours of counting that pollsters had failed to read the public mood. On the eve of the results, they had sent the Indian stock exchange into a bullish frenzy by declaring Modi the absolute victor. As counting closed, the leading pollster Pradeep Gupta of Axis My India – one of the most credible – openly wept on national television for getting it so wrong. He was neither alone nor entirely to blame. The Indian mainstream media has for a decade sung from Modi’s hymn sheet – indeed, it had outdone him in hitting the shrill notes.

If Modi must take the mantle as the biggest loser of the election, then there are multiple winners. For one, the country has vacillated with the revival of the Congress Party. India’s grand old party mounted a direct-contact programme that centred on justice and equity to counter the BJP’s focus on identity politics. It paid off. By making the Indian constitution the symbol of its campaign, the Congress-led opposition succeeded in putting the future of India’s polity at stake in this election. India’s federalism, which had been besieged both by Modi’s authority and centralised policy makeovers from taxation to welfare, has proved resilient. Regional parties will now be kingmakers, as both national parties will be dependent on their support.

For more than a decade, India has been suborned to the rule of one man. For ten years, Modi has been accustomed to prosecuting his agenda with little resistance. Though he is tipped to become the prime minister through a coalition, he has now been forced to compromise. And for the first time in his career, dissent is as likely to come from the sprawling and increasingly factionalised leaders and affiliate bodies within his party as from an empowered opposition. Second-tier leaders in the BJP, who have long been sidelined, will be motivated to end his monopoly of power over the party.

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Chandrababu Naidu, leader in the southern state of Andhra and Modi’s key ally, has become indispensable. Thanks to the strong performance of his regional Telugu Desam Party, Naidu will help make up the BJP’s electoral deficit to form the new coalition government. Naidu is known as a pro-business and secular leader, and his partnership with Modi is indicative of the extent of the compromise that the prime minister will need to make to return to the top office. Prior to Modi’s decade of rule, India had only known coalition governments which made the sharing of power the condition of rule. This return to coalition politics will test Modi’s personality and leadership style, above all.

The Indian electorate has not entirely rejected Hindu nationalism – the BJP remains the single largest party. Instead, it has rejected domination by a single man, favouring the instability of a coalition over the prospect of a one-party state. Crucially, India has affirmed pluralism over populism.

The country was an early innovator in the strongman populism that has dominated global democracy this century. Its 2024 verdict in this mega-year of elections also means India is leading the way in putting an end to it.

[See also: What the West gets wrong about the war in Ukraine]

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