The election results offer a breath of fresh air. India desperately needed some force to check the growing power of a divisive Prime Minister. And the Indian voters have now provided that force. The real winner of the 2024 elections is India’s democracy.

How does one make sense of the election results? What lies ahead? Narendra Modi and the BJP had predicted a landslide victory, hoping to grab more than 400 Lok Sabha seats. Judged by that standard, the election results are a major setback for Modi; the BJP lost 63 of its current 303 seats, winning only 240, well short of the 272 needed to form a majority government. However, it is also notable that the share of votes the BJP secured in the current elections hardly declined: It went down marginally from 37.3 per cent in 2019 to 36.6 per cent in 2024. So, Modi and the BJP remain a formidable political force in India. The sharp decline in the BJP’s parliamentary presence is less a function of Modi’s declining popularity and more a result of the success of Opposition parties to work together. The issues that the election then throws up are — why did Modi and the BJP fail to improve their popularity; and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition?

Simply put, Modi failed to improve his standing because his decade-long performance in power was mediocre and because the popularity of Hindutva has reached some upper limit.

As to performance, one needs to carefully unpeel the reality from the hype of the Modi years; his government often distorted facts and – thanks to corporate support and supine media – exaggerated its economic achievements. According to World Bank figures, India’s average annual economic growth during the Modi period was a little lower (under 6 per cent; even if one excludes the Covid years) than achieved during the preceding Congress period from, say, 1991 to 2013 (over 6 percent). What these aggregate figures hide is the notable failure of the government to pursue its “Make in India” commitment that was supposed to promote manufacturing and create jobs. Nothing of the sort came to pass; Industrial growth in India during Modi years remained sluggish and jobs that paid livable wages hardly materialized. This pattern of growth was also accompanied by a staggering increase in economic inequalities. According to World Inequality Report (2021), between 2012 and 2020, the share of wealth owned by the top one per cent of Indians increased from 30.7 to 42.5 per cent, while the share of the bottom 50 per cent declined from 6.4 to 2.8 per cent. cent. Rahul Gandhi and others in the Opposition caught on to these changes; they rightly raised them as part of their campaign against Modi.

Modi and his supporters often claimed that he sharply increased the welfare provision in India. Most of these claims were unfounded. According to data, central public spending on education and health hardly increased during Modi years. Expenditures on social services as a share of total government expenditures also continued to average around 22 percent, the same as they were during the preceding Congress years. What the Modi government excelled at instead was in branding all such expenditures as the PM’s personal “gift” to India’s poor.

Festive offer

With this economic record, it was difficult for Modi and the BJP to claim that they were superior economic managers. The INDIA Opposition put Modi on the defensive by constantly painting him as a friend of the billionaires, especially his fellow Gujaratis, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. The failure to create jobs also seems to have found resonance among the electorate. Sensing that the economic message was not securing further political support, Modi and the BJP turned to more desperate measures. Arresting Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was one example. As the Supreme Court did its duty and allowed Kejriwal to campaign, Modi seemed to become even more divisive in his electoral rhetoric. Early evidence suggests that such moves to broaden pro-Hindu support did not work. The BJP lost its seat in Faizabad, a constituency that houses the Ayodhya temple.

Moreover, the fact that Modi’s own electoral base shrunk significantly in Varanasi underlines that not only has Hindutva’s appeal reached limits, but Modi is not the invincible charismatic leader that corporate-supported media makes him out to be.

Modi and the BJP overplayed their hand. As they squeezed the opposition, the opposition came together. Imagine what the election results would have looked like if such spoilers as Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, and Chandrababu Naidu had also thrown their lot with the Congress-led alliance. Pre-poll electoral arrangements among the Congress and various regional parties are probably the best explanation of why the BJP lost so many seats.

This suggestion is supported by the fact that Congress’s share of the popular vote increased only marginally, from 19.5 per cent in 2019 to 21.2 per cent in 2024. Rahul Gandhi has emerged from this election as a credible Opposition leader. It is too early to say whether his embrace of left-of-center rhetoric is more akin to Indira Gandhi’s empty promises of garibi hatao or a real change in the political stand of the Congress party; the latter would be welcome. It should be underlined, however, that there was more than a little hypocrisy in Congress raising the issues of growing inequalities and joblessness. After all, these trends began very much under the post-1991 Congress regime, with the pursuit of “economic liberalisation” as the mantra.

What lies ahead? With Nitish as an ally, Modi is likely to have many a sleepless night. He also does not have the personality of a consensus builder. Whether the circumstances make a statesman out of him remains to be seen. What is clearer is that the pressures of a coalition government will temper Modi’s authoritarian instincts. And that is good news for India.

The writer is David Bruce Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University, USA

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