Narendra Modi’s Disappointing But Not Disastrous Election

June 5, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Asia Tags: IndiaDemocracyNarendra ModiBJPElections

Narendra Modi’s Disappointing But Not Disastrous Election

India’s parliamentary elections have dealt a blow to the prime minister. But if he learns the right lessons, he may be set for further success. 

Yesterday, India concluded its six-week, drawn-out parliamentary elections. As always, the country did not fail to surprise the global community. The conventional wisdom was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would win in a landslide, and the exit polls appeared to confirm that his coalition would gain between 355 and 380 seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) of 543 seats. 

As in other countries, the exit polls were wrong, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies won 291 seats—enough to form a government but a far cry from the 400 seats that the party bragged it would win. The general consensus was that with a sweeping majority, the Modi government would take drastic steps to reshape Indian society along ideological lines. Instead, the electorate voted for a more pluralistic parliament. Why did this happen, and what are the implications for Indian democracy?

Modi based his electoral strategy on seeking to accelerate development and appeal to the Hindu cultural agenda. The first did not deliver the goods, and the second did not sway voters who were not already committed. Instead, the appeal to Hinduism not only alienated the Muslim vote—in a country of over 200 million Muslims—it led minority voters to mobilize effectively against the ruling party. On the economic front, large-scale inflation, especially for foodstuffs, hit the pocketbooks of the average Indian, causing disillusionment with the government’s policies. Further, the tendency to use the state to intimidate the opposition, the media, and think tanks did not resonate well with the general public or the intelligentsia and gave the opposition the incentive to organize and coordinate successfully. 

Yet, these factors do not fully explain the results. The BJP made inroads into the states where it was not expected to make an impact, although some of this stems from the anti-incumbent tendency in Indian politics. What India has ended up with is the BJP as the largest party in parliament, with 140 seats more than its nearest rival. It will, therefore, form the next government in coalition with allied parties.

In part, this is because the opposition, while tapping into the resentment against the BJP’s policies, did not provide a clear agenda of its own. In the past, the opposition coalitions have won only to squabble and break up in government. The Indian electorate, which wants good governance above all, grows weary of such ham-handed efforts to grab power. Further, the opposition wants to wean away parties from Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition to gain a majority and form its own government. Still, the prime minister’s allies, for now, are standing firmly with the current government. They, too, know of the ineptness of the opposition to form and maintain governments. Does this mean, however, as some commentators are now suggesting, that Modi’s power is on the wane? The answer is that it depends. 

If the BJP learns from its disappointing electoral performance, then it will focus on internal reform and strengthen its economic platform. Internal reform means tolerating an opposition and allowing it to provide healthy dissent. This would restore confidence in the Indian political system, both domestically and internationally. It also makes Modi look like a resilient and confident leader who can listen to criticism and learn from it. 

Reform also means toning down the Hindutva rhetoric, which has made both minorities and the average Indian uncomfortable with the majoritarian direction the republic is headed. The government banked heavily on lavish spending to build a temple in the city of Ayodhya, which is the birthplace of the god Ram. Movie stars, athletes, and a who’s who of Indian celebrities attended the inauguration of the temple, which was built on a razed mosque, and the event was seen as significantly boosting the BJP’s electoral chances as the defenders of Hinduism. Instead, the BJP candidate from Ayodhya lost the race for parliament. Religious appeals obviously have their limits, and they cannot smooth over pressing economic concerns. 

This is where, however, Modi can succeed if he is able to accelerate growth in an already hot economy. The government’s emphasis has long been on building highways, airports, and other critical transportation infrastructure. There, its record is impressive. Where it has lagged behind, as Ashoka Mody has persuasively written, is in job creation despite high GDP growth. Yet, jobs are the top concern for the majority of the population that is under the age of thirty. 

The Indian electorate also likes Modi’s foreign policy because it is seen as muscular and gaining respect on the international stage. Indians approved of the 2019 decision to carry out a punitive strike on Pakistan following a terror attack in India that killed forty military personnel (Modi blamed the attack on Islamabad), and this most probably was the catalyst to win the 2019 election handily. Although the attack on a facility in Pakistan met with large-scale approval, it was muted somewhat by the shooting down of an Indian fighter jet in the skirmish that followed. 

More worrying, perhaps, is the simmering border dispute with China. Over the past few years, there have been three confrontations between Indian and Chinese soldiers, leading in one case, Galwan, to the confirmed death of twenty Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers as well. The Indian media and parts of the Indian military have been pushing for a more assertive policy towards China by displaying the country’s military muscle. A full-blown war between the two countries would stymie Indian developmental efforts. If the conflict did not end in a manner that satisfied the Indian public, it would lead to large-scale protests against the Modi government. 

Modi, however, has been careful not to get into a war of words with the Chinese and has pursued a less provocative strategy. Instead, he has sought to quietly build up Indian infrastructure along the border so as to allow for the better deployment of Indian troops to counter Chinese incursions. He is also engaging in a general buildup of the Indian armed forces, but even this is limited by the Indian public’s demand to prioritize development over defense. 

Those writing Modi’s political obituary are premature. His party has the largest number of seats in parliament, and opportunistic members of the opposition are prone to switching sides for personal and political gain in India. He could, therefore, gain more members for his alliance. However, the key question is whether the Modi government can learn from its mistakes. If it does, the party can emerge stronger since it has the discipline and drive to function as a coherent and effective political unit. Modi would emerge as a leader who has the sagacity to learn and reform. If, however, the next term becomes a game of political tit-for-tat, then his coalition members may seek greener pastures. 

Amit Gupta is a Senior Fellow of the National Institute of Deterrence Studies. The views in this article are his own.

Image: Exposure Visuals /

Correction: An initial version of this article stated that the BJP won 100 more seats than the Indian National Congress (INC). The exact difference is 140 seats. The National Interest apologizes for this oversight.