India’s Modi Stays in Power, but Weakened
India’s Modi Stays in Power, but Weakened
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks after taking an oath during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks after taking an oath during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Q&A / Asia 1 minute

India’s Modi Stays in Power, but Weakened

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party remains in the driver’s seat following the Indian elections, but it has lost its majority in parliament. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Praveen Donthi explores the implications for New Delhi’s domestic and foreign policies.

What happened?

On 9 June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a third term following the world’s largest elections, held in stages from 19 April to 1 June. He is the first Indian leader to take the oath a third time since 1962. But while his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finished way ahead of any other party in the polls, it was, unlike on the two previous occasions, unable to secure a parliamentary majority. It will thus now have to depend on a coalition to govern. Contrary to all the predictions, which had it gaining seats, the BJP lost 63, bringing its total down to 240 (of the 543 in parliament). 

The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, came in second with 99 seats, almost doubling the share it won in 2019 – just 52, its worst performance ever. The Congress is the centrist party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the only other Indian premier to win three times. Its score is all the more significant as it fielded close to 100 fewer candidates than the last time around, pursuant to an alliance it forged with 27 other opposition parties to confront the BJP, which has dominated the political landscape for the last decade. Called the Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), this grouping bagged 232 seats – a remarkable tally given that the playing field was tilted in the BJP’s favour by weakened institutions, pro-government media, lack of space for dissent and pervasive fear of the Modi government’s disapproval. The BJP had also garnered the lion’s share of anonymous campaign donations through the system of “electoral bonds” the Modi government inaugurated in 2017, helping give the party a huge financial advantage over its opponents. 

The results came as a shock to both domestic and international observers. Despite the overall victory, losing seats is an embarrassment for the BJP, and for Prime Minister Modi personally, as the campaign focused heavily on his leadership qualities. Party officials including Modi himself, as well as analysts and the media, had predicted not just an absolute majority for the BJP and its allies but a super-majority crossing the bar of 400 seats – a score achieved only once in Indian history. While it was clearly an ambitious goal, the prime minister’s high popularity ratings made the prospect of such a crushing triumph seem not completely unrealistic. The outcome, however, seems to indicate that opinion polls overstated both Modi’s standing among voters and their enthusiasm for his government’s achievements over the last decade. Modi’s own performance in his Varanasi constituency encapsulated the broader trend: despite the enormous amounts the BJP spent in this northern city, he won the seat, but by a much narrower margin than in the previous two elections. 

The 2024 elections take India back to the norm of coalition politics.

The 2024 elections take India back to the norm of coalition politics. Before Modi came to power in 2014, no party had managed to muster an absolute majority for decades. By putting an end to BJP hegemony, the vote restores a certain equilibrium in the world’s largest democracy: it should strengthen the checks and balances parliament can impose on the executive branch. The results have also dented Modi’s larger-than-life profile, which had led many to consider him invincible. That said, the BJP remains by far the country’s most popular party. After the polls, it immediately formed a coalition with fourteen regional allies, giving it political and social heft in regions outside its stronghold in the north. The two most important in terms of seats are the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the state of Andhra Pradesh, in the south, and the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) from the state of Bihar, in the east. Both were already part of an alliance with the BJP, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but for the past decade, the BJP’s dominance meant it did not need to compromise with its partners to make policy. Collectively, the NDA members now control 293 seats.

Modi named the council of ministers on 10 June, retaining BJP ministers in the crucial top four portfolios – which constitute the Cabinet Committee on Security – thereby signalling continuity in governance. His closest confidant, Amit Shah, will continue as home minister; Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will remain as external affairs minister; Rajnath Singh will retain the defence ministry; and Nirmala Sitharaman will keep the finance ministry. The new council of ministers includes 72 members (up from 57 in 2019), with eleven (up from four in 2019) from the BJP’s coalition. Though its closest allies are now better represented in the council, neither got a high-profile ministry, a sign that Modi’s party is still very much in the driver’s seat. 

What explains the BJP’s setback?

Modi came to power with the promise of ushering in economic growth and making India a superpower. To some extent, he has delivered. On his watch, India has become the world’s fifth largest economy – and the fastest-growing one – and its profile has risen on the global stage, especially during its G20 presidency in 2023. But the agenda of making India a “Hindu nation” has remained central to the BJP’s ideology, with government and party officials regularly venturing into anti-Muslim hate speech and the government adopting several policies seen as favouring Hindus. Due to Modi’s charisma, this ideological project has garnered unprecedented support among India’s 80 per cent Hindu majority, cutting across class and caste divisions, from the rural poor to the urban elite. 

Hindu nationalism once again came to the fore during the 2024 campaign, including in Modi’s own speeches. Although he had largely stayed away from the topic in the two previous campaigns, leaving it to others in his ideological family to use inflammatory language when talking about the country’s religious minorities, this time Modi himself unleashed rhetoric targeting Muslims, albeit without naming them. He alleged – without basis – that if the Congress came to power, it would seize the wealth of Hindus and distribute the money among “infiltrators” and those who have “more children”, using widely understood Islamophobic references to Muslims. He also alleged that the Congress was trying to unite “a certain community” to commit “vote jihad” against him.

But it seems that these sectarian themes had limited appeal. Most surprisingly, the BJP lost in Ayodhya, where Modi informally started his campaign by inaugurating the newly built temple to the Hindu deity, Ram, suggesting that religion, or more generally Hindu pride, was not a decisive factor for voters in that district this time around. (The movement to build the temple at the site of a demolished 16th-century mosque, which Hindu nationalists claimed was located at Ram’s birthplace, had propelled the BJP to national prominence in the 1990s. But delivering on the promise to build the temple did not give Modi a shot in the arm.) The decline of Modi’s appeal is evident, as the BJP won only 53 per cent of the constituencies where he stumped in person, down from 85 per cent in 2019.  

India’s growth has been jobless of late, leading to increasing frustration among rural youth.

Despite the media’s portrayal of a nationwide growth miracle in the run-up to the polls, India’s economic performance over the last decade has also been less impressive than these claims suggest – with independent economists widely questioning the official government data. If correctly measured, analysts say, India’s GDP growth would be slower than the generally accepted 7-9 per cent. Perhaps more important in shaping the unexpected electoral outcome is the fact that India’s growth has been jobless of late, leading to increasing frustration among rural youth, who account for more than 80 per cent of the country’s unemployed. The rural distress that started with arbitrary lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened due to uneven growth, with some sectors that employ large numbers of people, such as agriculture and manufacturing, suffering disproportionately. These factors hurt the BJP’s performance in states with a low growth rate in per capita income since the 2019 polls. 

Perhaps the most surprising election theme, and one that also acted to the BJP’s detriment, was a debate about India’s constitution. The BJP’s aspiration to win 400 seats set alarm bells ringing among lower-caste communities, who suspected that such a huge mandate would allow the party to overhaul the constitution, stripping it of safeguards to which they are entitled. Religious minorities likewise worried that the BJP might do away with provisions making India a secular state. According to post-poll analysis, both these constituencies shifted their vote to the INDIA alliance, while the upper castes stayed with the BJP. 

For its part, in addition to portraying the elections as a fight for constitutional values of equity, equality and social justice, the INDIA alliance also gained ground by focusing the political conversation on issues such as unemployment and inflation. While the emphasis on economic well-being resonated with those without jobs, and those suffering hardship in rural areas, the alliance’s promise to protect India’s secularism struck a chord with both religious minorities and lower-caste Hindus. INDIA’s second largest party, Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi, was particularly adept at stitching together a coalition of diverse castes and communities, harnessing discontent with the BJP on various fronts. 

The effects of these shifting dynamics were most visible in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, where 240 million people reside. Comprising 80 parliamentary constituencies, Uttar Pradesh is widely considered the key to national power. Though the state is governed by one of the BJP’s most prominent figures, the Hindu monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath, the party only managed to win 33 of its seats, down from 62 in 2019. That result proved fatal to the BJP’s parliamentary majority at the national level.

How did the election play out in the conflict-affected areas of Kashmir and Manipur?

The 2024 elections were the first to be held in Jammu and Kashmir since the BJP government’s 2019 decision to revoke its semi-autonomous status and split the state into two federally administered union territories: one called Jammu and Kashmir, and the other Ladakh. While carrying out these drastic changes, the government detained the entire Kashmiri political class. It has since introduced a series of land and domicile laws that have taken away certain protections for locals, triggering fears among Kashmiris that it is pushing for demographic change by settling Hindus in the country’s only Muslim-dominated region. Undertaken without local consultation, these decisions have led to a groundswell of resentment among Kashmiri Muslims and continued support for militancy. 

Interestingly, Kashmiris came out to vote en masse. The three constituencies of the Kashmir Valley, which is 95 per cent Muslim, recorded their highest turnout in the last three decades, at 50.86 percent (versus only 19.16 per cent in 2019). The Modi government was quick to declare that this enthusiasm marked the public’s endorsement of its 2019 decisions, which it claims have brought peace and prosperity to the region. But the BJP itself did not field candidates in the valley, indicating that the Hindu nationalist party is well aware of the anger and frustration it has stirred up there. For the same reason, New Delhi has been postponing regional elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

[In this election] for the first time, the [Kashmiri] separatists and militants refrained from issuing a boycott call.

By participating in large numbers, Kashmiris more likely aimed to demonstrate that they had, on the contrary, not accepted these decisions handed down by New Delhi. Since militancy first appeared in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, elections have mainly spotlighted the divide between the regional parties that agreed to participate and the separatist leaders (in some cases along with affiliated militants) who boycotted. The public largely stayed away from the polls, resulting in abysmal turnouts – at times as low as 6 per cent. This election marks a break from that tradition; for the first time, the separatists and militants refrained from issuing a boycott call, and many people saw the polls as a way to express their frustration. Having declined to participate itself, the BJP backed regional proxy parties created since 2019, which did not win a single seat. 

The traditional regional parties, which had allied themselves with the BJP before turning on it in 2019, and were until then widely considered the velvet glove for New Delhi’s iron fist in Kashmir, also faced humiliating defeats. In the Baramulla constituency, former chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference lost to Sheikh Abdul Rashid, an independent candidate detained since 2019 on terrorism charges, who ran from prison. Many voters who had boycotted elections in the past decided to back Rashid, whom they perceive as a victim of the central government’s heavy-handedness rather than the militant New Delhi accuses him of being.  

The people of Manipur state in the country’s north east, which is ruled by the BJP and has been roiled by ethnic conflict of late, also disavowed the ruling party. The state has two parliamentary constituencies, one in the valley around the capital Imphal, and the other in the surrounding hills, which corresponds to the state’s ethnic demography: the largely Hindu Meitei, the majority, live in the valley, while the largely Christian Kuki-Zo tribes live in the highlands. The BJP lost in both constituencies, which elected Congress candidates instead, sending a clear signal that both ethnic communities are unhappy with the state and central governments for their handling of the conflict. Over the past year, ethnic clashes have killed more than 200 people and displaced tens of thousands more in the state. The government has been unable to bring the situation under control, despite deploying more than 50,000 security personnel, and Manipur is now divided into two exclusive ethnic zones, separated by a buffer zone patrolled by New Delhi’s forces. Violence marred the vote, leading to reruns at eleven polling stations.

What is Modi likely to focus on in his third term?

Addressing BJP party workers after the results on 4 June, Prime Minister Modi promised “big decisions” but provided no details as to what his government’s priorities would be. In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 election, he promulgated a series of controversial policies dear to the Hindu nationalist movement. The two most prominent were the decision to scrap Article 370 of the constitution conferring special status (ie, a level of autonomy) upon Jammu and Kashmir, which it then pushed through parliament without a debate; and the Citizen Amendment Act, which provided a fast-track process for granting refugee status to religious minorities from surrounding countries but excluding Muslims. 

This time around, however, Modi will need to confer with coalition partners, which could somewhat curtail his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Historically, both the BJP and the Congress have often struggled with regional parties as coalition partners, as the latter can be more focused on their states’ affairs than on national issues. (India has only six national parties.) While the TDP and the JD(U) – the two largest parties that rallied behind Modi after the polls – do not necessarily subscribe to the Hindu nationalist agenda, they have no major ideological disagreements with the BJP, either, and both are likely to be opportunistic and transactional in a coalition setting. Both, however, rely on sizeable Muslim constituencies in their respective states, which may lead them to openly disagree with the BJP when it opts for its most radical brand of anti-Muslim rhetoric and politics. A JD(U) leader has already said his party would not allow “anti-Muslim campaigns” while it shares power with the BJP, and a TDP leader felt compelled to specify that his party would not scrap affirmative action for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, associating the current policy with “social justice”. 

The same TDP leader also promised that his party would “discuss at length and resolve amicably” national issues such as the controversial Uniform Civil Code, which the BJP intends to introduce to replace the separate bodies of family law governing issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession for the country’s different religions. Mentioned in the party manifesto since 1989, the Code is perceived as a priority for Modi’s third term. The BJP has repeatedly used it as a vehicle to suggest that Muslims are clinging to retrograde practices in the personal sphere. There is also widespread concern among Muslims about whether the Code, which would be applicable to people of all religions, will in effect be a Hindu civil code. The issue could well become a litmus test for the new coalition government if it comes up for implementation.

Modi may double down on the Hindu nationalist agenda to try consolidating his power.

More generally, the reinvigoration of the Congress and the INDIA alliance – if it holds together (which at present seems likely) – means that the BJP will need to deal with a more vocal and active opposition. “No longer will parliament be muzzled and stifled as it has been over the past ten years”, said Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress. Though the opposition will now be better positioned to enforce welcome checks on government action, some analysts believe Modi may double down on the Hindu nationalist agenda to try consolidating his power. In his victory speech, he spoke of the need to strengthen India’s arms industry, create jobs for youth, raise exports and support farmers. The question is what he might do to pursue ideological goals he left unmentioned. Apart from the Uniform Civil Code, the BJP has already promised that it will move to enforce the Citizen Amendment Act, as the required rules were cleared by parliament just before the elections. 

Major change is unlikely in India’s foreign policy, where Modi’s approach over his first two terms enjoys a high approval rate among Indians. Broadly speaking, the Modi government will probably continue to seek a diverse group of friends and partners – at the same time steering the country closer to the United States, striving to be a leading voice for the so-called Global South, and pursuing its ambitions of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It will also keep cultivating ties with Moscow, with which it has enjoyed good relations since the early days of India’s independence in 1947. India has a strong defence partnership with Russia and needs its support to manage prickly relations with China. 

Beijing will remain at the centre of New Delhi’s international calculations. Bilateral relations have been frozen since 2020, when a clash on the disputed border left twenty Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead. The two sides have subsequently deployed an estimated 100,000 troops on either side of the border – and tensions remain high. Though Modi has denied that Chinese troops have intruded into Indian territory, India has in fact lost access to at least 1,000 sq km of land it used to patrol along the border. Relations are also at a standstill with India’s arch-rival Pakistan, as they have been since 2019, when New Delhi accused Islamabad of letting suicide bombers kill 44 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. During the campaign, Modi explicitly said he does not intend to restore relations with Islamabad. Revealingly, Modi invited all the elected leaders from South Asia except Pakistan’s prime minister to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Although some anticipated that the Modi government might reach out to China and Pakistan once it had secured a third term, the BJP’s electoral setback makes the chances of rapprochement look slim, as Modi himself is unlikely to make a move that could further tarnish his strongman image domestically. 

Manipur and Kashmir will also continue to pose security challenges for the Modi government. Militants in Manipur carried out attacks on 8 June, with insurgents in Kashmir following suit the next day. In the Manipur incident, suspected Kuki-Zo militants torched 30 houses and two police outposts, days after killing a Meitei farmer, in the Jiribam district, one of the few left with a mixed population. About 200 people from both the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities have been evacuated. Militants also attacked an advance security convoy, which was on its way to Jiribam to assess the situation before the chief minister’s visit, injuring two policemen. In the Jammu and Kashmir attack, militants fired at a bus carrying Hindu pilgrims in Jammu region’s Reasi district, killing nine people and wounding 33. The attack was most likely timed to coincide with the swearing-in of the new government. There were three more militant attacks in the region in the next couple of days, injuring more than ten security personnel. The attacks in Manipur and Kashmir illustrate the shortcomings of the Modi government’s security policy in the previous term and cast a shadow over the next.

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