Why a Weakened Modi is Good News For India’s Democracy

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A stellar show by the opposition has forced the BJP into a coalition government. This means the party will have to curb its agenda of Hindu majoritarianism.

Smita Gupta

India’s Narendra Modi swore in as prime minister on June 9 for a record third time, but this time, his government had to depend on two regional parties opposed to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindu majoritarian ideology to make up the numbers.

With the return of coalition politics, Modi will no longer wield absolute power, or be able to disregard the Constitution and other democratic institutions in the way he has for the last decade.

The famed Modi magic, clearly, has not worked this time–the magic that had, in the past, mesmerised unhappy voters into setting aside their own grievances, converting losing candidates into winners.

Modi’s BJP lost more than a fifth of the seats it had won in 2019, and though he was re-elected from his own constituency of Varanasi, his vote share dropped dramatically by around nine percentage points.

Across the country, the BJP won 240 seats, 32 short of the halfway mark of 272. With its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies, it touched 291, a far cry from the 400-plus that it had set its sights on.

And this was an election in which the Election Commission of India (ECI) was seen to have played an actively partisan role.

Not only that, the BJP had more resources than all other political parties combined, and it used all the instruments of the state against the opposition.

The opposition alliance, INDIA, won 234 seats, while the Congress virtually doubled its strength from 2019 by winning 99 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.

These numbers mean that the face-off in the next Parliament will be far more equal than it has been in the previous two Lok Sabhas in which the BJP-led NDA had an overwhelming majority. The BJP will now find it much harder to push through any legislation or amendments to the Constitution that it may have had in the pipeline.

Modi will no longer be able to ride roughshod over his cabinet colleagues, chief ministers, party members, and indeed, the opposition.

He will have to adopt a more consensual approach towards everyone, and he will not, hopefully, be able to browbeat the bureaucracy or arm-twist those who head critical institutions, such as the investigative agencies, the judiciary and the Election Commission.

Modi will also have to heed the wishes of his allies from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Janata Dal-United, and the two splinter groups of the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party, which have also aligned with the NDA.

Indeed, on June 5, less than 24 hours after the results had come in, reports of the first post-election NDA meeting indicated that the allies had given their wish lists to Modi – the number of ministerial berths as well as the portfolios they expected to be given.

In addition, the TDP has demanded the post of Lok Sabha Speaker, a powerful constitutional functionary tasked with ensuring the smooth conduct of the lower House.

If the last goes through, there will be a sea change in the way the Lower House is run, with the BJP no longer able to silence opposition voices.

Modi will also have to make peace with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), from which it draws ideological inspiration.

Its members traditionally work for the BJP elections, but this time, reports suggest that they have stayed aloof in many places. BJP president JP Nadda made things worse when he said in a recent interview: “In the beginning, we would have been less capable, smaller and needed the RSS. Today, we have grown and we are capable. The BJP runs itself.”

For the Congress that–after leading a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for a decade (2004-2014)–shrank to a paltry 44 seats in 2014 and climbing to a mere 52 in 2019, winning 99 seats this time is a sign of a revival.

Ahead of the elections, the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi undertook two yatras – journeys – on foot across the length and breadth of the country. This helped to revive the base of an increasingly defunct party and gave Gandhi the opportunity to personally convey his message to thousands of people.

In the process, his personal popularity has risen. This was evident in his convincing victories in both the seats he contested – Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh and Wayanad in Kerala.

Indeed, he has earned his spurs in this election and now has the stature of a national leader.

The Congress and the regional parties that comprised the opposition INDIA bloc campaigned on a range of issues: they flagged economic distress, caused by high unemployment and rising prices, and the agricultural crisis; they simultaneously highlighted the possibility that if the BJP and its allies crossed 400, as the party had boasted, they might amend the Constitution to end the system of quotas for the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Other Backward Castes.

Finally, they spoke of the dangers of authoritarianism, hate speech and anti-minority actions. The opposition–disparate and disorganised as it was–managed to make its narrative resonate with the people, if not everywhere, certainly in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, which together account for 195 seats out of 542.

The biggest shock for the BJP came in Uttar Pradesh where it had hoped to better its 2019 record of 64 out of 80 seats; instead, it ended up with just 33 seats.

The Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) combine played their cards well to win 42 seats. The SP, often viewed as a party that derives its strength from Muslims and the backward community of Yadavs, acquired a new look this time, with party president Akhilesh Yadav’s caste arithmetic in candidate selection giving his party the inclusive look it needed.

It paid off, with the SP winning 37 seats, making it the third-largest party in Parliament.

The message of 2024 is clear: the Modi citadel can be breached. The numbers may still favour the BJP-led NDA but the way they eventually panned out, has given the opposition the air of the victor as the heroic defenders of democracy.

Political competition is back, and the BJP can no longer take the liberties it has been taking with democratic institutions.

C. TRT World

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