Narendra Modi’s Third Term: A Pyrrhic Victory Amidst Growing Opposition
Maria Tavernini 28 June 2024

The re-election of Narendra Modi, who has taken oath as prime minister for a rare third consecutive term, came with a bitter taste and mixed feelings. As is often the case in India, opinion and exit polls that foresaw a landslide victory for the incumbent prime minister failed to accurately predict the outcome of the world’s largest elections, which were held in seven phases from April 19 to June 1. When poll results started to roll in, it was clear that Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had lost their parliamentary majority for the first time in 10 years. Some have called it a humbling moment for Modi, who will have to come to terms with a partial defeat and a damaged “aura of invincibility”.

During the campaign, his Hindu nationalist party had repeatedly stated that it was aiming to get 400 seats in a coalition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, a number that was raising fears among the opposition and BJP detractors of possible constitutional amendments. Yet, the reality on the ground brought a greatly reduced mandate for the incumbent leader: his BJP won 240 seats, down from the 303 seats it had secured in 2019 and well below the 272 needed to form a majority government. The opposition, guided by India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress (INC), defied all predictions and re-emerged as a valid political force.

The Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most influential political dynasty, won 99 seats – 47 more than in the previous 2019 elections – while the coalition it heads, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (abbreviated in the acronym INDIA), a multi-party alliance opposed to the BJP, won 235 seats. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the majority coalition headed by the BJP, has collectively secured 293 seats, hence, for the very first time in his political career, Modi will have to come to terms with his political partners of the regional parties, who are known to be not so reliable on and, most of all, do not fully support his majoritarian agenda.

Apparently, the Muslim community in India has overwhelmingly voted for the INDIA alliance, a melting pot of parties that profess secularism, a value enshrined in the constitution that has defined the character of the country since its independence. A value that in the past ten years has been increasingly jeopardized by the BJP and its Hindu-Supremacist agenda. The leaders of the opposition have openly criticized Modi for bringing so much religion into this election campaign that turned out blatantly aggressive towards Muslims. Despite a decade of minorities’ discrimination and majoritarian policies, it was the first time that this kind of vitriolic language was publicly used by the highest ranks of the party. Side note: while mob lynching is a recurrent feature under Modi’s rule, four Muslim men were beaten to death by Hindu mobs in the 12 days after the elections.

The Election Commission has warned Modi due to a series of speeches that amounted to hate speech. “Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators?” he asked the crowd during a rally as his party baselessly alleged that the opposition was planning to transfer wealth away from Hindus (who constitute almost 80 percent of India’s 1.41 billion people) to give it to Muslims. Another time, he referred to the largest minority in India, which accounts for 14 percent of the population, as “those who have more children”. A complaint letter to the Election Commission of India, subscribed by over 17 thousand people, alleged that the prime minister had violated the Model code of conduct by making a speech “aiming at not only appealing to ‘communal feelings’ but also instigating and aggravating hatred in the Hindus against Muslims”.

After such a polarized campaign, for the first time since the independence of India, no Muslim took oath as Union minister. The previous cabinet led by Narendra Modi did have a Muslim minister in the Rajya Sabha, at least until 2022: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was the Minorities Affairs Minister and the only Muslim minister appointed by Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, which counts nearly 400 MPs. All councils of ministers ever since India became independent did have at least one Muslim member of parliament. But not this time. Moreover, the incoming parliament will have one of the lowest numbers of Muslim MPs – 24 – in the history of republican India.

After having sworn in for his third mandate, Modi chose a new cabinet that mostly retained its top ministers. Amit Shah will keep on being India’s Home Minister; Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who headed the country’s foreign policy in the past government was confirmed in his position as the External Affairs Minister; Nirmala Sitharaman will continue as the Finance Minister; and Rajnath Singh will remain as the Defense Minister. Yet, Modi’s coalition government is largely dependent on two regional allies — the Telugu Desam (TD) Party in southern Andhra Pradesh state and Janata Dal (United) in eastern Bihar state — to stay in power: two lawmakers from both parties were also sworn in as ministers as their respective organizations demanded cabinet seats.

Narendra Modi is a very controversial and polarizing leader, who grew up in the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization of the Hindu right whose ideology is incarnated by the BJP. In the past 10 years, Modi has implemented increasingly majoritarian and discriminatory policies towards the country’s many minorities, primarily Muslims. While during his first mandate Modi leveraged on the rhetoric of “development” which he had captivated the enormous Indian electorate with, he also started taking the first steps towards power centralization and majoritarianism. But it was during his second mandate that the government’s agenda and attitude heavily veered towards an authoritarian and supremacist drift.

So, what can the country expect from a Modi 3.0 coalition government? Will Modi be able to bring forward its Hindu-Supremacist project despite not having a full majority in the parliament? Will its allies fight back and demand consensus policies? Will the opposition manage to ride the wave of discontent with the government policies and records and reinvigorate India’s democracy? Only time will tell. Yet, these elections marked a severe setback for the 73-year-old leader, who has carefully built a personality cult around his figure. The BJP’s election manifesto has been showcased not as the party manifesto but as Modi ki guarantee, the personal guarantees given by Narendra Modi. One of the main goals is “Viksit Bharat 2047”, to reach “a developed India” by 2047, the year when the centenary of the independence is celebrated.

Modi’s government also said to be committed to strengthening the “four pillars of the country” – youth, women, the poor, and farmers – while it also promised to introduce a Uniform civil code (UCC) by replacing the personal laws of different religious groups, a measure that is widely seen as discriminatory towards Muslims, and a law to enable “One nation, one election” – another initiative criticized for trying to suppress the country’s diversities. Some of the BJP’s allies have already publicly stated that decisions on contentious policies would “not be taken unilaterally”. This election, historic in many aspects, has proved that Modi is not as invincible as it was thought and that the Indian democracy is not as dead as it seemed to be.



Cover photo: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi flashes victory sign as he arrives at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to celebrate the party’s win in country’s general election, in New Delhi on June 4, 2024. Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP.



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