Decoding India’s Elections: How Modi’s Grip Loosened 

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Decoding India’s Elections: How Modi’s Grip Loosened 

Modi’s BJP lost its majority, meaning it will be heavily dependent on allies this term.

Decoding India’s Elections: How Modi’s Grip Loosened 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters dance at the party office during the counting in India’s national election, in Guwahati, India, June 4, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

Nothing could have been more symbolic on June 4 – the day Indian national election results showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party losing its majority in the Parliament – than the outcome in the parliamentary seat of Faizabad in north India. 

In January 2024, Modi led the highly-publicized consecration ceremony of the grand new Ram Temple (Ram Mandir) on the same land where the 16th century Babri mosque stood before its demolition in 1992. The prime minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hoped the temple would usher in a new era of Hindu nationalist pride in the country and ensure a third term for the party at India’s helm. 

Lord Ram has been the BJP’s biggest political mascot. It was a movement seeking the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya town of Uttar Pradesh state in north India and the “reconstruction” of a Ram Temple on the same site that triggered the BJP’s nationwide rise in the 1990s. 

But June 4 revealed that the much-hyped temple inauguration with full state patronage failed to impress voters, including a majority of Hindus. 

The BJP lost the Faizabad parliamentary seat, which encompasses Ayodhya. Hindus compose 83 percent of Faizabad’s demography. 

Reflecting the trend, in a rather unexpected development, Modi’s party lost its majority in India’s Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament. Of the 543 parliamentary seats, the Hindu nationalist BJP’s tally stood at 240, well below the majority mark of 272. 

Since its allies have won another 44 seats, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) may still be able to form a government, though with an unnervingly slim majority.

In 2014, the BJP won 282 seats on its own, and the NDA’s tally stood at 336. They bettered the tally in 2019 when the BJP alone won 303 seats and its allies added another 50. This time, Modi had called for 370 seats for the BJP and 400 for the NDA. 

Mallikarjun Kharge, the president of the Congress, India’s main opposition party, described the result as a “mandate” against Modi. “This is his political and moral defeat,” said Kharge, pointing out that the BJP “had asked for votes in the name of one person, one face.”

The Congress won 99 seats, a significant improvement from his 2014 tally of 44 seats and 2019 tally of 52. Overall, the opposition platform of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, popularly called the INDIA bloc, notched up a tally of about 230 seats. 

Some parties are not part of either alliance, and both sides are now trying to woo them to stake claims on government formation. 

A Remarkable Verdict 

“The June 4 verdict signifies a victory for the people of India. They have taught Modi a lesson,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of multiple books on Hindu nationalists and Modi, including “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.”

Mukhopadhyay described the result as a “corrective verdict” not swayed by mega narratives and hyperboles. He saw the results as a rejection of a highly centralized system of governance where the government is synonymous with one individual. 

“The verdict shows that people do not want to be governed by a megalomaniac but by a collective. It is a rejection of authoritarian style of governance and very much comparable to the 1977 verdict,” he said.   

In 1977, India voted out Prime Minister Indira Gandhi following her 21-month dictatorial rule under provisions of Emergency that allowed her to crush all dissent. 

According to Sanjay Kumar, a professor and co-director of Lokniti, a research program at the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), India gave a split verdict. 

“There is no pan-India narrative. The BJP suffered in states that it dominated for the past 10 years but also earned popularity in states where it has never been in power,” Kumar told The Diplomat. “The BJP’s ability to expand beyond the traditional hold has saved it from a rout,” he said.  

Modi’s personality cult has been the BJP’s key strategy and asset over the past decade. Toward the end of the 2024 election campaign, Modi even claimed that his birth was not biological – that God sent him on purpose. The opposition parties, on the other hand, hammered hard on this personality cult.  

Notably, Modi’s victory margin from the Varanasi constituency in north India came down from 480,000 votes in 2019 to 150,000 votes this time. 

Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi literature at Delhi University and a political commentator, pointed out that Indian democracy has seen leaders with a greater majority, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi – who had a parliamentary strength of over 400 seats – and Indira Gandhi, who had over 350 seats. 

“However, never before in Indian democracy had a leader presented himself or herself as someone sent by God. This hubris, to a people trained in democratic traditions who have memories of strong leaders, turned out to be unacceptable,” he told the Diplomat. 

According to Ajay Gudavarthy, a political scientist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the loss of the BJP should not be taken lightly, given the power of manipulation the BJP had at its disposal using money and the media. 

“People proved that India continues to be driven by a robust common sense, something that the Faizabad defeat reflects,” said Gudavarthy, author of the book “Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India.’”

A Remarkable Election 

The BJP’s losses in its bastions of the Hindi heartland – the region of India’s most-spoken language, Hindi – were already anticipated by a section of political observers. Setbacks for Modi’s party in Maharashtra, the second-largest state, were also predicted. 

Hindi heartland states propelled Modi to power in 2014. Of the 228 parliamentary constituencies, 195 elected BJP candidates and 11 voted for its allies. In 2019, the belt gave the BJP 183 seats and another 25 to its allies. It is where religious issues have traditionally had the highest electoral appeal. 

This time, the BJP’s tally from the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, and Delhi came down to 135 seats, while its allies won another 20. 

The biggest shocker came from Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of the three-decades-old Ram Mandir movement. 

Of the 80 seats in India’s largest state – where the chief minister is a saffron-clad, monk-turned-politician – the BJP won only 33. Its allies won another three. INDIA bloc partners Congress and Samajwadi Party bagged 43 seats. 

In 2014 and 2019, the BJP won 72 and 63 seats in the state, respectively. 

Apoorvananda said that his students from different parts of Uttar Pradesh had been telling him since last year that the youth in the state were fed up with being used by the Hindu nationalists only as their footsoldiers. 

“The youths in Uttar Pradesh realized that the BJP was using an utopia of a Hindu nation to hide their incompetency in the real issues of governance, such as creating opportunities for employment and wealth generation,” Apoorvanand said. 

Maharashtra, India’s second-largest state with 48 parliamentary seats, dealt the BJP-led NDA another rude blow. The NDA’s tally in the state stood at 41 in 2014 and 2019. But political equations drastically changed from the end of 2019 due to the change of alliance partners, the subsequent splits in two regional opposition parties and the toppling of the opposition-led state government.  

Opposition parties had blamed the BJP for engineering the splits by using money and government agencies. A sympathy wave in favor of the opposition became the talk of the town during the electoral campaign. 

Eventually, the BJP’s tally dropped to nine in the state, with its allies winning another eight. The Congress and its allies, meanwhile, tallied 30 seats in Maharashtra. 

Gudavarthy said that the Maharashtra results show the people do not approve of disruption of ethics beyond a limit.  

When the election campaign started early in April, political observers sensed the 2024 election was significantly different from 2014 and 2019, as the “Modi wave” was missing, at least on the surface. There was no visible pan-India anti-incumbency wave either. This prompted some political analysts to suspect the mandate would be for a status quo. 

However, analysts like Sanjay Kumar and psephologist-turned-political activist Yogendra Yadav started pointing out that the campaign narrative changed mid-way, that the BJP’s call for return to power with a bigger majority had backfired. Yadav earlier told The Diplomat that while there was no wave, he was sensing some undercurrents.  

According to Kumar, the BJP wanted to contest the election on issues like the Ram Mandir and the scrapping of Article 370 (concerning the sensitive Kashmir region), but other issues like inflation and unemployment dominated the electoral campaign.

“The opposition campaign terming the election as one to save the Constitution and protect the reservation that lower Hindu castes enjoy in education and jobs connected more with people than the BJP’s issues,” said Kumar. 

Several other political observers think the verdict reflects how people were scared of giving the BJP too much power. 

Expansion and Alliances  

The BJP suffered losses to regional forces in India’s four largest states, losing 29 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 14 seats in Maharashtra, six in West Bengal, and five in Bihar. Among mid-sized states, the party lost 11 seats in Rajasthan and eight in Karnataka.  

However, the BJP increased its tally by 12 in the eastern state of Odisha, which it swept, and gained four seats in Telangana, three in Andhra Pradesh, and one in Kerala in the south. 

Kumar pointed out that in the southern states, the BJP’s campaign strategy was significantly different from the north. 

“They were campaigning more on the government’s international image, India’s global achievements and how India has emerged as a major global player. They knew temple sentiments don’t work in the south,” he said. 

India’s opposition took a unique strategy in this election. They allied at the national level under the umbrella of the INDIA bloc but its components decided to strike state-specific arrangements. As a result, the opposition coalition members fought each other in multiple states. 

The Congress fought the communists in Kerala in the south but allied with them in eastern India’s West Bengal to fight against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), another member of the INDIA bloc. 

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rules Delhi and Punjab, allied with the Congress in Delhi, Haryana, and Gujarat, but the two fought each other in Punjab. 

Opposition parties hoped that fighting each other in states where the BJP is not in power could help reduce the BJP’s chances of gaining. In the end, the BJP lost six seats in West Bengal and failed to make many gains in Kerala and Punjab.

What has worked the best in the BJP’s favor are two alliances that it struck in the last six months – with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in January 2024 and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desum Party in March. 

The JD(U) chief, a veteran BJP ally, had parted ways with the ruling party in 2020 and was one of the early initiators of the INDIA bloc in mid-2023. However, toward the end of the year, Nitish Kumar was upset with the developments at the opposition initiative and the BJP was quick to get him back on their side. 

The support of Naidu’s 16 MPs and Kumar’s 12 is now the BJP’s key to retaining power. 

Should Modi be able to form the government for the third time – a feat achieved only by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – he is unlikely to have the same freedom with which he boldly pushed the Hindu nationalist agenda over the past 10 years. The support bases of his allies are mostly outside the Hindu nationalist votary. 

If there was another development that symbolized the electoral outcome, it was the result at Banswara in Rajasthan of northwestern India. 

It was from Banswara on April 21 that Modi launched his tirade of anti-Muslim speeches, which he continued with till the end of the election campaign on May 30. When the results were counted, Banswara handed the BJP a humiliating defeat, with its candidate finishing 15 percentage points behind the winner.