India is more than Modi

With the return of coalition politics, the rule of many has ended the rule of one

June 11, 2024
Narendra Modi arrives to take oath as the prime minister of India at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi on 9th June. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Narendra Modi arrives to be sworn in as the prime minister of India in New Delhi on 9th June. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The spell has been broken, the aura of invincibility gone! Or, so said many as the shocking results in India’s general election began trickling in. Nearly all exit polls had confidently predicted a resounding victory for the incumbent president Narendra Modi. And yet, an election widely taken to be a done deal, a mere formality before the crowning moment, had turned into one of the most dramatic upsets in the country’s recent political history. 

On 4th June, soon after the counting began, it became apparent that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might not reach the majority mark, let alone the dream of getting a supermajority of 400 seats that had been the centrepiece of his campaign. As the day proceeded, the early trends were confirmed: the BJP had stmanaged to win only 240 seats, 32 short of the minimum needed to form the next government. It wasn’t just the lack of numbers but the nature of the loss that stung. Modi was re-elected in his seat in Varanasi albeit with a significantly reduced margin, among the lowest ever for a sitting prime minister in India. 

More telling, however, was the loss of the Faizababad seat, which includes the district of Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. This was the site of a new temple to the Hindu god Ram that Modi had inaugurated in a widely publicised ceremony in January this year. Since the late 1980s, the emotive agenda of temple construction has been crucial to the BJP’s emergence as a force in Indian politics. Carefully timed ahead of the 2024 election, the party had hoped the temple inauguration would help consolidate the Hindu vote. Instead, Modi's party faced a setback in this hugely symbolic seat and other seats previously deemed safe for the BJP across Uttar Pradesh. 

The primary cause of the setback is the growing economic distress, unemployment and inflation that is felt widely in rural areas and small towns across the country. While the Indian economy has been growing at a fast pace, the country is now more unequal than it was during the colonial era. The disconnect was palpable in the final phase of the election, where voting opened in some parts of the country in April until polls closed on 1st June. The stock market had soared high in anticipation of a landslide victory for Modi. On the day that actual votes were counted, it plunged as spectacularly, erasing $386bn in market value. 

It wasn’t just the BJP’s losses that made headlines. Equally unexpected was the resurgence of the opposition Congress Party, which had been all but written off in Indian politics. Rahul Gandhi, its leader, is often painted as a political novice by partisan media, but the party was elected with huge margins in two seats—Rai Bareili in the north, and Wayanad in the south. The Congress Party had won 99 seats and, together with its Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance partners, a total of 232 seats. What made these electoral gains stand out is that the odds were stacked heavily against the opposition, which faced a largely unfriendly media, scarce campaign funds, two chief ministers imprisoned, and the constant threat of being implicated in criminal offences. Just a few months ago, the task of taking on the BJP’s mighty political machine had seemed futile. Yet the centre-left, social justice-oriented opposition managed a breakthrough, making a surprise comeback.    

Modi’s third stint as prime minister will be at the mercy of coalition partners. While the numbers in the parliament can be cobbled together, the prime minister failed to win the popular endorsement he wanted. How will this great electoral upset shape India in the coming years? Two images capture the ongoing shifts, laying bare some futures that have been disrupted, or rather postponed, by this result—and the nature of the politics that are emerging.   

The first is widely publicised footage from the end of May, showing  Modi in a state of meditation during the final phase of the election. Dressed in saffron robes, he sits with folded hands in front of the statue of Swami Vivekanand, the influential 19th-century Hindu philosopher and reformer. It offers a quick preview of a possible future: the merger of the spiritual and the temporal, a step towards India’s makeover into a Hindu civilisational nation, a goal that the BJP has long desired. Modi, assured of his electoral victory, comes across as the sole purveyor of India’s destiny, ready to implement his 1,000-year vision for the country. The second photo is taken five days later. It features Modi with members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition partners of the BJP. The backdrop is shorn of grand symbolism, reflecting the fact that many of the BJP’s allies do not share the party’s ideological thrust towards Hindu-first politics. In fact, Modi’s coalition partners are secular parties; and one of them, JDU, is decidedly socialist. TDP, another ally, is more free market-oriented. But neither shares the prime minister’s Hindu nationalist ideology.

Between these two images, five days apart, a seismic shift unfolds in Indian politics: Modi is no longer the only figure in the frame, the sole spokesman of India. Instead, he is one among many of the country’s leaders. The electoral setback has forced him to do what he has long been reluctant to do: share space with others. BJP’s 2024 election manifesto, for instance, was called “Modi’s Guarantee”, and featured him as protagonist.

It has also brought back coalition politics, once a norm, especially in post-1990s India. While some commentators have read this as a return to uncertainty, it is anything but. India has had stable minority or coalition governments in the past and some of its crucial policy shifts were made during those periods. This includes India’s shift in the 1990s towards a liberal economic policy, as well as gains in foreign policy such as the 2005 Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, under which India became the only non-signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty to have access to civil nuclear trade. These shifts required extensive consultation between parties to broker support, including disagreements, and therefore had broader legitimacy across the aisle. In short, the foundation of India’s celebrated rise as a global economic power was laid during the coalition era.

The election result has opened the possibility for coalition politics once again. It opens space for many more voices that had been muted. For one, it means a more restricted space in which the BJP can push its core Hindu nationalist agenda. The coalition allies will likely call for a joint vision that will also reflect their values. This doesn’t mean the vision of Hindu-first politics is discarded, but that it has been postponed for some time. The election has also shown the limits of identity politics, as well as the unbridled capitalism that can create jobless growth. The emergence of various protest movements since 2019, including that of farmers, was an indication of underlying economic grievances. A key challenge ahead will be addressing economic distress and balancing growth with the redistribution of public goods. 

Further, for many, the 2024 election had become an existential battle to safeguard India’s constitution, which guarantees rights and freedoms to its citizens, especially the poor, minorities, and marginalised caste groups. Some in the BJP had indicated that the party would make amendments to the constitution if the BJP won a large majority, though what changes exactly was never made clear. Many voters feared that constitutional reform would be a step towards India losing its secular character and becoming a formally Hindu nation. Thus, “save the constitution” became a popular cry. The anxiety over losing constitutional safeguards betrays an underlying discomfort at the prospects of a Hindu Rashtra, or nation. This tension will continue to shape India’s society and politics. Much depends on how a resurgent opposition will build on its gains, or how key institutions will function.  

For now, the verdict is clear: India is more than Modi. The rule of many has indeed ended the rule of one. However, anxieties persist about whether the BJP’s coalition partners will be able to rein in the party’s excesses to forge a more moderate path.