Indian voters reject Modi’s vision for one-party state in win for competitive democracy

Analysis by Rhea Mogul, CNN

CNN  — 

The opposition obituaries had been written. According to most polls, India’s election was a foregone conclusion.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing, Hindu-nationalist alliance was expected to secure a supermajority – and with it the power to enact radical change unopposed.

To Modi’s critics and opponents, India was on the fast track to becoming a de-facto one-party state.

But as Trump’s victory of 2016, Brexit and countless other upsets of recent years have shown, opinion polls and analysts can often get it spectacularly wrong.

Going into this election, Modi had set a goal of winning 400 seats in the lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha. But as results began to trickle in Tuesday night, it quickly became clear his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wouldn’t even have enough to form a simple majority.

Instead, for the first time since coming to power a decade ago, Modi will be reliant on longstanding local coalition partners to keep him in government.

In what opposition parties have declared as a victory for pluralism, voters in the world’s largest democracy partially rejected Modi’s populist vision for a Hindu-first nation, reducing the BJP’s share of the vote by 63 seats – bringing its total down to 240, far below the 272 required for a parliamentary majority.

Opposition parties meanwhile won 235 seats, while BJP’s coalition partners secured a 52 seats.

Tuesday’s result is a humbling moment for a leader who declared he was sent by God and whose lead in the polls was lauded by supporters as unassailable.

The BJP’s inability to secure an outright majority “pricks the bubble of Modi’s authority,” wrote political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta Tuesday night.

Modi is “not the indomitable vehicle for History … Today, he is just another politician, cut to size by the people.”

‘He will have to tread carefully’

Modi’s victory Tuesday makes him the first leader since India’s founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to secure a third five-year term.

Since assuming power in 2014, Modi has attained levels of popularity not seen in decades, owing to a raft of development and welfare programs, mixed with a strident brand of Hindu nationalism in a country where about 80 percent of the population are followers of the polytheistic faith.

Under Modi’s leadership, the country of 1.4 billion people has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy and a modern global power, making strides in technology and space. Yet, despite these successes, poverty and youth unemployment persist – particularly in rural areas – and the wealth gap has widened.

Modi has spoken of having a vision of India for the next 1,000 years and wants to turn it into a developed nation by 2047. He has made clear his ambitions of transforming the constitutionally secular country into a Hindu-first state, most recently inaugurating a grand temple on the site of a desecrated mosque.

AYODHYA, INDIA - JANUARY 22: A general view of the Ram Mandir on the day of its consecration ceremony January 22, 2024 in Ayodhya, India. The Ram Mandir, a temple built at a site thought to be the birth place of Lord Rama, a significant figure in Hindu religion, was be inaugurated on Jan. 22, 2024. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images)

He now might have to “go a little slow on all his ambitious plans,” said New Delhi based political commentator Arathi Jerath. “To push India on a path towards becoming a Hindu country with a major voice on the world stage, he will have to tread carefully. He faces challenges at home.”

The BJP has long been accused of using state agencies to stifle opponents. Under Modi’s rule, India’s once boisterous media has been tamed and in the run up to the election, opposition leaders and parties faced a slew of legal and financial challenges.

The arrest in March of the popular Aam Aadmi Party leader, chief minister of Delhi and staunch Modi critic Arvind Kejriwal sparked protests in the capital and prompted claims of a political “conspiracy” by his party – claims the BJP has denied.

Kejriwal’s release on interim bail last month galvanized the opposition to put up a tough fight against the BJP, uniting a group of political leaders who were once divided over ideological differences, in what they described as do or die fight to save the country’s constitution.

‘Headed towards unchecked domination’

Critics also say a decade of Modi’s governance has led to growing religious polarization, with Islamophobia marginalizing much of the country’s more than 200 million Muslims, and religious violence flaring up in a nation with a long history of communal tensions.

While campaigning Modi was repeatedly accused of using Islamophobic messaging to fire up his base.  He sparked a row over hate-speech when he accused Muslims – who have been part of India for centuries – of being “infiltrators.”

Tuesday’s results appear to show that large swathes of voters have rejected such brazen rhetoric.

If opinion polls had been accurate, India would have been “headed towards unchecked domination by the BJP,” Mehta, the political scientist, said. “It was a domination that threatened to end the possibility of all politics, swallowing up all opponents, and colonizing civil society,” he added.

“India now has once again a deeply competitive political system.”

Tuesday’s results, said Sanjay Singh of the opposition-allied Aam Aadmi Party, showed the people had voted against “hatred and dictatorship.”

The elections, he added, send a message from the public that “they are tired of the BJP’s 10-year rule and want a change.”

As results of the BJP’s shock losses became clear on Tuesday night, Modi took to the stage outside his party’s headquarters. Showered with rose petals, adorned with a massive garland, and speaking over chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” he made no admission of defeat.

“Today is a glorious day,” he thundered. “The NDA is going to form the government for the third time.”

And while there is no doubt that they will, the election remains a reality check for the popular leader.

“This is in some sense a wakeup call to a leader who is still very, very popular,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research. “But who many voters feel have crossed lines for what should otherwise be a very vibrant democracy.”

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