A Triumph of Indian Democracy

More open politics also promises to boost growth in the 2030s and beyond. The election shows that Indians are united by a desire for development, not their Hindu identity.

6 mins read
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence in New Delhi.

Ishaan Tharoor, in a report in The Washington Post, said that long before shock election results were released that eroded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political mandate, the seeds of discontent were planted in the poor, zigzagging alleys housing Indians at the foot of society. Months ago, upper-caste members of Modi’s party boasted they would gain so much political power that they would amend India’s constitution to remove affirmative action, said villager Yogendra Kumar.

Surprise Revolt by the Dalits

There was another problem. Modi never delivered jobs to the poor or kept inflation in check. Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, were part of the crucial voter bloc that delivered the biggest surprise this week. Low-caste Hindus in the Hindi-speaking heartland unexpectedly rebelled against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the BJP won the most parliamentary seats, it fell well short of securing the majority needed to form a government. In a bruising campaign over the past seven weeks, Modi often appealed to religion, portraying himself as a champion of Hindus anointed by God and denouncing Muslims as “infiltrators.” But ultimately, according to political analysts, the election was decided along the fault lines of caste and class. In the key state of Uttar Pradesh, where Modi had inaugurated a massive temple in January to consolidate the Hindu vote, many low-caste Hindus voted similarly to Muslims, another group dissatisfied with Modi’s rule.

Uttar Pradesh Comes to Modi’s Rescue

Ultimately, the state that played an outsized role in propelling Modi to victory in 2014 and 2019 delivered the majority of its 80 seats to the opposition. “Those who were betting on a vote along Hindu-Muslim lines have been shown that society realizes they are trying to separate us just so they can be in power,” said one observer. “The biggest weakness of BJP is it’s all about religion. If they do actual work for our education, then we can move up.” Modi failed to win a governing majority for the first time in his 23-year political career. Because the BJP failed to win a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, Modi will potentially have to offer concessions to other parties to form a governing coalition.

Modi’s Electoral Setback Due to Widening Economic Gulfs

Political analysts say Modi’s electoral setback partly reflects grievances rooted in the widening economic gulfs and challenges facing India, particularly since the pandemic. Entering the election, unemployment was running high at 8.1 percent, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. In March, a group of researchers found that wealth inequality in India had worsened under Modi and reached a record level, surpassing that during British colonial times. Modi’s rivals seized on those grievances.

The Economist Shows How Out-of-Touch Political Elites Does Not Work

The famous British magazine The Economist reports that the world’s biggest electorate has just shown how democracy can rebuke out-of-touch political elites, limit the concentration of power, and change a country’s destiny. After a decade in charge, Narendra Modi was forecast to win a landslide victory in this year’s election; yet on June 4th, it became clear that his party had lost its parliamentary majority, forcing him to rule through a coalition. The result partially derails the Modi project to renew India. It will also make politics messier, which has spooked financial markets. And yet it promises to change India for the better. This outcome lowers the risk of the country sliding towards autocracy, buttresses it as a pillar of democracy, and, if Modi is willing to adapt, opens a new path to reforms that can sustain its rapid development.

The drama unfolding amid a scorching heatwave begins with the election results. Modi’s BJP aimed to take up to 370 seats in the 543-member lower house, an even bigger majority than in 2014 or 2019. Instead, it won just 240. It lost seats to regional parties in its heartlands in Uttar Pradesh and beyond, reflecting a revival of caste-based politics and, it seems, worries about a lack of jobs. Whereas his coalition partners were previously optional extras, he will now rely on them to stay in power. Their loyalty is not guaranteed.

A Shock Election Humbles Narendra Modi

A shock election humbles Narendra Modi. Modi could respond to disappointment in two different ways. The people and places that turned away from the BJP. This is not just an electoral upset, but a repudiation of Modi’s doctrine of how to wield power in India. As our new podcast “The Modi Raj” explains, he is a remarkable man, born in poverty, schooled in Hindu-first ideology, and consumed by the conviction that he was destined to restore India’s greatness. For Modi, India has been kept down by centuries of rule under Islamic dynasties and British imperialists, followed after independence by socialism and the chaos inherent in diversity and federalism. For over a decade, Modi’s answer has been to concentrate power.

Hindu Chauvinism May Not Be a Panacea

That meant winning elections decisively on a platform that emphasizes his own brand, Hindu chauvinism, and an aspirational message of rising prosperity. In office, his method has been to use executive might to ram through policies that boost growth and reinforce the BJP’s grip on power. Modi has changed India for good and ill. Fast growth promises to make its economy the world’s third-largest by 2027. India has better infrastructure, a new digital welfare system for the poor, and growing geopolitical clout. However, good jobs are too scarce, Muslims suffer discrimination, and under a sinister illiberalism, the BJP has captured institutions and persecuted the media and opposition. This year’s election was supposed to mark the next phase of the Modi Raj. With an even larger majority and a new presence in the richer south of the country, the BJP aspired to unitary authority across India at the central and state levels. That might have made big-bang reforms easier in, say, agriculture. But such power also raised the threat of autocracy. Many in the BJP hoped to forge a single national identity, based on Hinduism and the Hindi language, and to change India’s liberal constitution, which they view as an effete Western construct. Modi would have reigned supreme.

Modi May Have to Depend on Parliamentary Coalition

Yet every Raj comes to an end. If, as expected, the BJP and its allies form the next government, Modi will have to chair a cabinet that contains other parties and which faces parliamentary scrutiny. That will come as a shock to a man who has always acted as a chief executive with unchallenged authority to take the big decisions. Succession will be debated, especially inside the BJP. Even if Modi completes a full term, a fourth one is now less likely. Modi’s diminished stature brings dangers. He could resort to Muslim-bashing, as in the past. That would alienate many Indians but might possibly repair his authority with his base and the BJP. Coalition government makes forcing through economic changes harder. The small parties may gum up decision-making as they demand a share of the spoils. India’s growth is unlikely to fall below its underlying rate of 6-7%, but higher welfare spending may lead to cuts in vital investment. That explains why the stock market initially fell by 6%. These dangers are real, but they are outweighed by the election’s promises. Now that the opposition has been revived, India is less likely to become an autocracy. The BJP and its allies also lack the two-thirds majority they needed to make many constitutional changes. Disappointed investors should remember that most of the value of their assets lies beyond the next five years and that the danger posed by democratic backsliding was not just to Indians’ liberty. If strongman rule degenerated into the arbitrary exercise of power, it would eventually destroy the property rights that they depend on.

More Open Politics Preferable to Strongman Tactics

More open politics also promises to boost growth in the 2030s and beyond. The election shows that Indians are united by a desire for development, not their Hindu identity. Solving India’s huge problems, including too few good jobs, requires faster urbanization and industrialization, which in turn depend on an overhaul of agriculture, education, internal migration, and energy policy. Because the constitution splits responsibility for most of these areas between the central government and the states, the centralization of the past decade may yield diminishing returns. That means the next set of reforms will require consensus. There are precedents. Two of Modi’s main achievements, tax reform and digital welfare, are cross-party ideas that began under previous governments. India has had reforming coalitions before, including BJP-led ones. Modi modified the question facing India is therefore whether Modi can evolve from a polarizing strongman into a unifying consensus-builder. By doing so, he would ensure that India’s government was stable—and he would usher in a new sort of Indian politics, capable of bringing about the reforms needed to ensure India’s transformation can continue when the Modi Raj is over. That is what real greatness would look like, for Modi and his country.

Indian Democracy Capable of Bringing Narendra Modi to Account If He Fails

Fortunately, if he fails, India’s democracy is more than capable of holding him to account. The world’s biggest electorate has just shown how democracy can rebuke out-of-touch political elites, limit the concentration of power, and change a country’s destiny. After a decade in charge, Narendra Modi was forecast to win a landslide victory in this year’s election; yet on June 4th it became clear that his party had lost its parliamentary majority, forcing him to rule through a coalition. The result partially derails the Modi project to renew India. It will also make politics messier, which has spooked financial markets. And yet it promises to change India for the better. This outcome lowers the risk of the country sliding towards autocracy, buttresses it as a pillar of democracy, and, if Modi is willing to adapt, opens a new path to reforms that can sustain its rapid development.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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