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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is returning to power for a third consecutive term, but with a slimmed-down mandate delivered by an electorate weighed down by economic precarity.

In official results announced today, his coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has secured around 290 seats — far below what virtually every exit poll said and the 400-seat goal set by Modi before the voting began.

Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure an outright majority on its own. It’ll need a coalition to rule. Forming one should be no trouble. The BJP-led NDA election coalition is likely to stay intact and should form the basis of a government at the center.

An Election Post-Mortem

The election results were perhaps no surprise to Modi and the senior ranks of his party. On the campaign trail in April, Modi reverted to divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric — something he’s generally delegated to subordinates in recent years. At that point, turnout in the multi-phase elections was lower than expected. And it’s likely that the BJP’s own polling indicated that too few voters were opting for the NDA, hence the desperate resort to anti-Muslim incitement.

The opposition INDIA coalition led by the Indian National Congress (INC) had the odds stacked against it. The BJP has captured state institutions as well as the private media. And it even arrested opposition politicians like Arvind Kejriwal ahead of the polls.

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But today’s results show that the country’s electoral institutions retain a relatively high degree of integrity and autonomy — though they looked away at Modi’s violations of electoral codes and there were localized incidents of voter suppression and violence targeting Muslims and other minorities.

As Pratab Bhanu Mehta writes, India’s elections remain “deeply competitive.” And that, in Mehta’s view, gives the INC-led INDIA coalition a chance to produce a “radical realignment of Indian politics” — as long as “the alliance holds together.”

That’s a big if. But this time around, Modi’s opponents seem to have gotten their act together, at least in key regions like Uttar Pradesh, where the INC and Samajwadi Party reached a compromise to not run candidates against one another lest they split the Muslim vote.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

But elections are ultimately about voter choice. And the biggest issue for Indian voters is the economy. India’s topline economic figures are impressive, though not entirely believable. More importantly, they don’t depict the reality most Indians experience, especially on the jobs front.

In a February 2024 survey by India Today, most Indians said they regard India’s unemployment problem as “very serious” and believe Modi has done too little or has failed to generate jobs.

Not only is economic optimism low, but a majority also believes that the biggest beneficiary of Modi’s policies is big business, like the Adani Group and Reliance Industries, owned by the prime minister’s favorite crony capitalists.

Other factors driving India’s election outcome also include the possibility that many voters were afraid that the BJP would push forward drastic changes to the constitution should it secure a two-thirds majority. The BJP’s centralization under Modi may have also produced an election strategy that did not correspond to local realities.

The Post-Modi Question

Modi’s hat trick is his worst election showing at the national level. Dependent on allied parties for a parliamentary majority, he’ll now have to learn how to rule as a coalition leader. That’s not easy for a 73-year-old whose political life has revolved around his personal ambitions and commandeering other power centers.

Modi has converted the cadre-based BJP into a cult and dominated its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Given that this may be Modi’s final term — it probably makes sense for him to bow out once this term ends rather than end his political career with a loss — one may see the RSS begin to push back against Modi and attempt to exert greater control over party matters.

Indeed, it makes sense to pay close attention to how a broad range of actors — including BJP politicians, Indian journalists, businessmen, the courts, and foreign governments — may begin to treat Modi differently if and once he becomes a lame duck.

The internal power struggle within India’s Hindu nationalist movement could rise to the surface five years from now when Modi’s third term comes to an end. The political stock of two potential successors, Modi’s righthand man, Amit Shah, and Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu monk and vigilante group founder who rules India’s largest state, have taken a beating.

Much of the failure of the BJP’s 2024 election strategy may be assigned to Shah. And the BJP lost most seats to the INDIA coalition in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh — including in Ayodhya, the city home to a Hindu temple built on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu extremists.

The Indian election results may not be a decisive rebuke of Hindu nationalism. But they are a reminder that for voters, lived economic realities generally matter more than ancient mythologies.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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