India’s surprising election result is a setback for Modi

Don’t underestimate Indian voters

India has the largest electorate globally with 960m eligible voters. The results of the latest election, conducted over seven rounds of voting in different parts of the country, surprised everyone.

Virtually all of the exit polls taken after the final round of voting predicted a massive win for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which, along with some smaller parties, forms the ruling National Democratic Alliance. There had been a claim that this time BJP on its own would get 400-plus seats – 100 more than in 2019.

However, instead of adding 100 seats to its tally, the BJP lost more than 60. This means that it fell short of the 272 seats required to form a majority. Luckily its coalition partners added around 50 seats, meaning the NDA can form the government. Instead of a sole BJP government, there will be an NDA government where the smaller coalition partners will have more clout.

There is little doubt that this is a setback for returning Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much of the BJP’s campaign was built around him and he gave more than 200 public speeches while campaigning. The slogan was to trust Modi’s guarantees – his welfare schemes promising various handouts to people. It was also described as a BJP sarkar (government), ignoring the coalition partners. Now that luxury will end and the partners will demand their pound of flesh.

The opposition coalition, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, was contesting for the first time. It gained 233 seats, with lead party Indian National Congress getting 99 seats – twice as many as in 2019. Given the vagaries of Indian politics, this allows INDIA to bargain with some of the parties that make up the NDA coalition to cross over and form a government if the seats add up to 272. Furious phone calls are taking place. The outcome is not yet clear.

Modi’s setback halts his ambitious scheme of redesigning India as a Hindu republic rather than a secular state as it has been thus far. The lesson is that Indians do not like to be standardised as a single identity.

Not only are there 200m Muslims in India – forming the country’s largest minority – but Hindus are divided by castes and sub-castes. The caste status has been made into a vehicle for affirmative action, so Indians guard their caste status jealously, though it is a sign of inherited inequality. Separate identities are valuable to Indians – Hindus and Muslims alike. This election sends a message to Modi that Indian voters want to hang on to their identities and the benefits that accompany them.

Modi has been a powerful presence in Indian politics. If the negotiations with coalition partners go well, he will have a third consecutive term as prime minister –a record that only Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, held. But there is no doubt that a notice has been given to him to watch his step. The Indian voter does not like being taken for granted.

Days after the vote count, there is less uncertainty about what will happen in India. The NDA will definitely retain power with Modi as prime minister. INDIA will not for the present try to bid for power. So there are two new developments. We are back to a coalition governing without the largest party having a majority on its own. Second, we have a united opposition party. Indian politics is converging very slowly to a two-coalition politics, if not a two-party one.

The one uncertainty is that we do not yet know what the NDA coalition partners who have seats in double digits will demand from BJP and how much will they get. This is new territory for Modi, who has never had to negotiate like this. This may strengthen rather than weaken the growth and welfare orientation of the regime and moderate its anti-Muslim stance.

Meghnad Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Chair of the OMFIF Advisory Council and Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords.

Image credit: G20 Argentina

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