Indian Election Delivers Stunning Setback to Modi and His Party

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he arrives at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, India, June 4, 2024.

NEW DELHI – Indian voters have delivered an unexpected repudiation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership as electoral tallies on Tuesday showed his Hindu nationalist party falling short of a majority in Parliament, piercing the aura of invincibility around the most dominant Indian politician in decades.

While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party finished first and is still well positioned to form a government with its allies in the coming days, the BJP’s performance paled in comparison to its showing in 2014, when Modi swept to power on a wave of national anger over corruption, or 2019, when he was buoyed by nationalist sentiment over a border clash with Pakistan.

The shock result sparked feverish celebrations among India’s opposition parties and marked a rare setback for an Indian politician who has never failed to secure a majority in state or national elections over a 23-year political career. As prime minister over the past decade, Modi has cultivated an image as a popular strongman and a serial winner, and most political analysts had expected him to easily brush aside India’s enervated and poorly funded opposition parties once more.

In the run-up to this year’s election, the Modi administration froze some of the opposition’s bank accounts, jailed some of their leaders on corruption- and tax-related charges, and enjoyed almost uniformly laudatory coverage by mainstream media companies controlled by Modi allies, spurring warnings within India and abroad that truly competitive elections could be vanishing from the world’s largest democracy.

Yet Tuesday’s results showed “India’s democracy is not as dead as we thought; that is for sure,” said Devesh Kapur, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “This electoral surprise shows that voters still have an independent mind. Otherwise this juggernaut would not have stalled.”

Whereas the BJP comfortably won a Parliamentary majority on its own in 2014 and 2019, it now needs to work with allies to control at least 272 seats in the 543- member Lok Sabha lower house needed to form a government. As of late Tuesday, the BJP was on track to win roughly 240 seats with the 272 number firmly out of reach.

The reliance on coalition partners will likely serve as a check on Modi’s power in the third term, Kapur said. “The judiciary, the media, and civil society had been cowed down,” he said. “There will now be more checks and balances if the opposition has wind in its sails.”

Late Tuesday, Modi struck a defiant tone as he presented his leadership as the only choice “if 21st-century India wishes to progress.” He emphasized that he would form a new government, work with smaller party leaders to govern India as a coalition, and pledged to hit back even harder at the opposition alliance, which he described as corrupt.

“When the corrupt congregate to safeguard their political interests and transcend all limits of shame, it strengthens corruption,” he told supporters. “In the third term, the … government will decisively take every step necessary to uproot corruption.”

Even before noon Tuesday, early vote counts suggested an unanticipated outcome. In a rare move, television networks typically aligned with the BJP changed the photo accompanying the party logo from Modi to the party president, J.P. Nadda.

Indian stocks dropped soon after markets opened on fears that the pro-business BJP might fall short, eventually closing down 6 percent, and companies led by Gautam Adani, a billionaire seen as a Modi ally, saw as much as a fifth of their value wiped out within hours.

For the first time in years, Modi seemed vulnerable.

“The entire party structure is built around advertising around him, but the challenge this time was that they weren’t able to come up with a set of issues that they could tie around Modi,” said Nilanjan Sircar, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. The government “overreached,” Sircar said. “People were uncomfortable with some of what the government was doing. Some red lines were crossed.”

In the lead-up to the election, Modi and his allies exuded supreme confidence, with BJP leaders pledging to capture 400 seats and staking the campaign almost solely on Modi’s personal appeal.

Modi’s name appeared 67 times in the BJP’s campaign manifesto, overshadowing the perennial issues of “inflation” and “jobs” mentioned once and twice, respectively. Many government welfare programs, such as free bags of grain, were marketed as “Modi’s Guarantee.” In campaign materials, the BJP featured pictures of Modi being welcomed by world leaders such as President Biden, who has sought to cultivate ties with the Indian leader as a counterweight to China.

But as the campaign unfolded, bitter recriminations over India’s religious and caste divides, often fanned by Modi himself, overshadowed discussions about his accomplishments, including improving India’s infrastructure, introducing pro-business policies and enhancing the country’s international image.

In television interviews, Modi said he was chosen by God and stressed that he had delivered to Hindus a long-sought temple to Lord Ram, which was consecrated earlier this year on the site of a razed mosque. At rallies, he repeatedly warned lower-caste Hindus that only he could stop the rival Congress party from scrapping India’s affirmative action programs or snatching their livestock and wedding jewelry and redistributing them to Muslims.

In the end, it was precisely voters in the devout Hindu heartland, the BJP stronghold that propelled Modi to victory in 2014 and 2019, who appeared to reject his appeals along religious lines. The BJP lost in the district of Banswara in Rajasthan state, where Modi had called Muslims “infiltrators” in a controversial speech. The Congress and Samajwadi opposition parties were poised to capture more than half of the seats in Uttar Pradesh, the same state where Modi had consecrated the grand Ram Temple with much fanfare.

The results could cast doubt over Modi’s ability to push through the rest of his agenda. BJP officials had proposed streamlining elections by conducting state assembly polls on the same day as the national election, which could further cement the party’s power, but it’s not clear whether that change will now be enacted. On the economic front, Modi also signaled that if given a strong mandate for a third term, he could push forward with labor reforms that would make hiring and firing workers easier, help local business owners and invite foreign investment. Those reforms may also be stymied.

But even if Modi’s personal standing is diminished, New Delhi’s growing closeness with Washington will remain a constant, analysts say.

“U.S.-India remains the most consequential relationship that India has. There is no contesting that within the Indian political system,” said Indrani Bagchi, chief executive of the Ananta Aspen Center think tank.

As Tuesday progressed, supporters of both the BJP and the opposition seemed to struggle to comprehend the surprise result. By midafternoon, BJP supporters who had milled around the party headquarters in Delhi expecting raucous celebrations with DJs as in previous years began to stream out early, only to be called back by party workers. Some party members put on a brave face and argued that a competitive election was a good thing.

“Hey, in some areas, we will grow, and in some, we will decrease,” said Rekha Singh, a member of the BJP women’s wing. “If we were running alone in a country, where would the fun be?”

Across town at the Congress headquarters, Muslim men from nearby states flocked to Delhi to watch the results in lawn chairs. Nearby, Hindu women flashed their mangalsutras – the traditional Hindu wedding necklace that Modi had warned would be redistributed to Muslims – to photographers to mock the prime minister.

After Rahul Gandhi, the Congress political scion and party leader, addressed the media in the late afternoon and pushed his way through ecstatic supporters playing drums and chanting his name, the crowd began to disperse. Nidhivan Pandey, 40, hung back to soak in the scene and distribute 50-cent copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book.

A Hindu ascetic clad in saffron robes and a turban, Pandey cut an unusual figure at the headquarters of political party that promoted secularism. But Pandey said he worried the BJP was mixing religion and politics the way that leaders did in Pakistan, a neighboring country that he considered inferior to India.

“It’s time for the BJP rethink a key issue: if you are suppressing one community and uplifting another one, you’re doing a wrong thing,” Pandey said. “In a democracy, the mandate of the people is as important as the voice of God.”