India: the election results downgrade Modi's leadership ambitions
Asia & Pacific

India: the election results downgrade Modi's leadership ambitions

By Tiziano Marino

The counting of valid votes for the election of 543 seats in the 18th Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Republic of India, concluded on June 4. The final results confirmed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the leading force in the country, by a narrow margin and performing well below expectations. Notably, for the first time since 2014, the BJP lost an absolute majority of seats in the Lok Sabha and, therefore, Modi will now be forced to negotiate with coalition parties to secure a third consecutive term in office, something that has happened so far only to the historic leader Jawaharlal Nehru. The shrinking of the majority becomes evident upon reviewing the final results. According to the Times of India, the NDA reportedly won 293 seats, up from 353 in the 2019 elections, while the BJP fell in five years from 303 seats to the current 240, below the critical threshold of 272 needed to hold a majority in the lower house. At the same time, oppositions led by the Indian National Congress (INC) performed well, with Rahul Gandhi’s party rising from 52 seats in 2019 to 99 in 2024. Overall, partly due to an effective policy of variable-geometry alliances, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDI Alliance), i.e., the coalition of opposition forces, won about 234 seats.

Against this background, the most likely scenario remains a third term for Modi, whose government should take into account the demands of BJP-allied parties, the real winners of this election round. These include the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by Chandrababu Naidu, which managed to win 16 of the 17 contested seats in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh and is now the BJP’s main ally. The TDP leader has already begun talks with the BJP leadership, and among his requests to support a new Modi government could be the demand for Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh, which would guarantee the state additional funds useful for the completion of relevant infrastructure projects, and also some ministers in key positions. Another relevant player will be the Janata Dal (United), a party that expresses the Chief Minister of the state of Bihar, which is known to have switched sides several times in recent years, moving from the majority to the opposition.

The setback for the BJP, whose optimistic election slogan, “Abki Baar, 400 Paar,” pointed to the 400-seat threshold as the coalition’s goal, is mainly related to declining support in the Hindu heartland of the country and, in particular, in some key states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharastra. Modi’s coalition substantially halved its seats in UP, overtaken by the INDI Alliance, which won as many as 43 of the 80 seats available. Decisive here was the performance of the Samajwadi Party, a party allied with Gandhi’s INC. Contributing to the opposition’s good result was an effective electoral campaign, characterized by popular proposals such as the introduction of women’s support measures, and the excellent handling of nominations in line with the complex local caste system. Most significant, in the context of what happened in UP, was the BJP’s defeat in Faizabad district, where Ayodhya is located, a city that made headlines last January for the inauguration of a temple dedicated to the god Ram built on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque torn down by Hindu fanatics in 1992. Compared to 2019, the combination of Hindutva and nationalism promoted by the BJP, therefore, seems to have failed, just as the candidate selection process proved fallacious. Instead, prevailing among sectors of the population that have benefited less or not at all from recent Indian economic growth has been discontent related to inflation, mainly of food items, and youth unemployment.

In Maharastra, too, local political dynamics, such as the splitting of realities like Shiv Sena, proved decisive and allowed the opposition to prevail in a state that had been dominated by the BJP in the 2019 elections. Suboptimal performance by the BJP was also recorded in medium-sized states, with the loss of 11 seats in Rajasthan and 8 in Karnataka. In the state of Haryana, where the BJP had won all 10 seats up for grabs in 2019, the opposition managed to wrest as many as five from the ruling majority by leveraging, among other things, protests against the Armed Forces recruitment reform, known as the Agnipath scheme, and those of farmers who have long demanded a guaranteed minimum price for their products and waivers of farm loans from the government. Stemming the majority’s decline in support were results in some strongholds such as Gujarat, Modi’s homeland, Madhya Pradesh, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Also notable was the NDA’s good performance in India’s southern states, such as Orissa and Telangana, driven by a campaign less focused on religious aspects and more on local factors and the government’s international successes.

Beyond territorial specificities, the Indian vote projected the image of a country partially dissatisfied with its economic condition in these post-pandemic years. High youth unemployment and uneven economic growth, driven by capital-intensive sectors, and yet still rather limited compared to the country’s potential and level of development, seem to be some of the issues behind the good result garnered by the oppositions. At the same time, the Modi government’s international successes do not seem to have had much impact on the national political debate, which has remained focused on domestic policy issues. Overall, the election campaign also confirmed increasing polarization, an aspect that is likely to characterize Indian politics even during the likely third Modi government.

Moreover, the general election weakened to some extent Modi himself, a leader who until now had enjoyed an aura of invincibility. This dynamic probably pleased some sectors of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization inspired by the dictates of Hindutva of which the BJP is essentially the political arm. An outstanding public speaker and charismatic leader, Modi in recent years has heavily personalized the party and the ideologies it champions, obscuring the role of the organizations that fostered its rise and, as a result, irritating some elements within them. Among the reasons for the Prime Minister’s party’s plummeting support in UP, some Indian reporters have pointed precisely to the low presence of RSS volunteers in the election campaign. The BJP’s downsizing in India’s most populous state also risks partly undermining the image of another party leader long considered Modi’s natural successor, namely Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. At the same time, the results of the polls would seem likely to revive, at least partially, Gandhi’s INC, which has been reeling from a long string of defeats at the national and local levels.

Looking ahead, the 2024 elections will have a major impact on the dynamics of Indian domestic politics, starting with appointments for the new Cabinet. The absence of a wide margin for the BJP, for instance, complicates the plans to amend the Constitution that Modi’s party seemed to be aiming for. The same divisive policies adopted by the leadership in recent years may be subject to partial rethinking, given the presence of a stronger opposition compared to the past. Thus, it seems reasonable to expect more attention in the short term to the development of labor-intensive sectors and policies to support youth employment. Still on the economic side, international observers; concerns relate to the possibility that a weak government may pay less attention to public finances, preferring expansionary policies aimed at consolidating consensus.

In the area of foreign and security policy, by contrast, the election results are not expected to have a significant impact, and consequently, India’s “grand strategy” and international stance are not expected to change. In this context, the process of rapprochement with the United States, as well as the persistence of tensions with Pakistan and China, will continue to mark the country’s external action in the short and medium term. However, it also looks reasonable to believe that in the coming months the BJP will focus its attention primarily on internal dynamics in an attempt to regain some of the lost ground. In this regard, it is worth noting the possible absence of PM Modi at the G7 summit in Italy, due to the negotiations for the formation of the government, which may prove to be more complex than expected.

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