Why the Indian Election Results Present Modi With a Defeat Within a Win

A stock market crash, a lost majority and major upsets for the Bharatiya Janata Party make this a bittersweet victory

Why the Indian Election Results Present Modi With a Defeat Within a Win
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrates. (Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)

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“A defeat that feels like a win, and a win that feels like a defeat” — this is how Indians have summarized one of the most unexpected election results in India’s political history. Exit polls predicted that a win would be a cakewalk for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with over 353 seats. Some even predicted 400 seats. For the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a big tent multiparty bloc led by the Indian National Congress, they projected between 125 and 182 seats. Even preelection surveys said the BJP would easily keep its majority. From political pundits to the public, everyone was expecting a third term for Narendra Modi with an even bigger majority. But come June 4 the results shocked both Indian politicians and the electorate alike.

The BJP failed to secure a clear majority and faced major setbacks in some key constituencies and states. Modi had set a target of 370 seats — a two-thirds majority — for the party, but it only managed to secure 240 seats. In 2014 and 2019, even though the BJP had fought in an alliance, on both occasions it gained an absolute majority, with 283 seats in 2014 and 303 seats in 2019, and could form the government on its own terms.

In the absence of a clear majority this time around, the BJP will now have to depend on its alliance partners to form the government, among them two prominent regional parties — Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. Their leaders, Nitish Kumar and N. Chandrababu Naidu respectively, are veteran kingmakers in Indian politics and their support will be crucial to the BJP as it forms a government. Kumar, known for switching sides, had broken away from the INDIA alliance earlier in January. Naidu had broken with the BJP in 2018 and had been a Congress party ally until his return to the NDA.

With 293 seats in total, and all seats declared, the NDA is set to form the government and Modi will be taking the oath as India’s prime minister for the third time — only the third leader in India’s history to do so. But he will be taking a role in a coalition government for the first time in his political career, which means he will have to work closely with the alliance partners, share power with regional parties in the government and listen to their demands.

The BJP “will have to call periodic meetings of its allies for temperature checks; it will need to get them on board before deciding on hot button issues,” wrote P. Vaidyanathan Iyer, executive editor of the Indian Express.

This is why the result is being called a defeat within a win for Modi and the BJP.

“In its enfeebled state, propped up by allies who know the precise cost of their support, the new BJP administration will be forced to temper its bluster and contain its malevolence against those it considers its enemies,” wrote Naresh Fernandes, senior journalist and editor at Scroll.in.

On the other hand, the Congress party, which had been decimated in the earlier elections and left with only 52 seats in 2019, experienced a revival, winning 100 seats, some of them in states such as Rajasthan and Haryana where the BJP had previously completely dominated. The INDIA alliance, which will now constitute the opposition, has in total won 233 seats, over 100 seats more than pollsters had predicted. The alliance includes several regional parties from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Delhi and Tamil Nadu, among others. For the opposition and the Congress party, then, the situation is being referred to as a win within a defeat.

The recent elections were said to be crucial for the future of Indian democracy given the outsize power and influence Modi wielded over the Indian polity. Prior to the elections, opposition leaders, who were sitting chief ministers, had been jailed and the Congress party had alleged that its bank accounts had been frozen and it was struggling to manage campaign-related expenses, which raised questions about India’s ability to deliver free and fair elections and the lack of a level playing field for opposition parties. This was coupled with curbs on civil society and a crackdown on independent media.

Given how central Modi had been, the results were supposed to be a mandate on his leadership and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that dominated his election campaign. The BJP election manifesto had more than 50 pictures of the leader, and all of its promises were branded as “Modi’s guarantees.” So confident were Modi and the BJP about returning to power that the party had coined the phrase “Char sau paar,” meaning “over 400,” expecting to win more than 400 seats in the Parliament and achieve hegemonic dominance. In fact, ahead of the elections Modi, Amit Shah (his close aide and former home minister) and exit pollsters all urged investors to pump money into the stock market, expecting a landslide victory for the party.

When the results were declared, not only did the stock market experience a crash, its worst since 2020, but political observers also noted that Modi — and the BJP — had been “humbled” by Indian voters. Headlines the next day read “India Cuts Modi Down,” “INDIA Blooms, Lotus Wilts” (a lotus is the official symbol of the BJP), and “Billionaire-Friendly Modi Humbled by Indians Who Make $4 a Day.” The overriding sentiment among people with a variety of political affiliations is that Modi lost his mandate due to this arrogance and overconfidence. “As reports from the ground have pointed out, this mandate is a rejection of the illiberal agenda, both social and economic, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advanced over the past decade,” added Fernandes. “In these surprising elections, Modi and the BJP appear to have discovered the limits of hype,” wrote Mihir Sharma in Bloomberg.

“There was some upset within the BJP’s ranks. They replaced over 100 of their sitting MPs, bringing in defectors and turncoats from other parties. This is important because the BJP is a rank-and-file, cadre-based party, so they don’t necessarily take very kindly to people coming from the outside,” Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy.

Apart from the overall tally, some key results help to flesh out the nature of the defeat embedded in Modi’s victory.

For instance, the BJP lost in Uttar Pradesh. There is a popular saying that the road to Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh, India’s bellwether state, where a population of over 240 million sends 80 out of 543 members to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament. In both the 2014 and 2019 elections, the state played a crucial role in BJP strategy and Modi’s route to power. In 2019, the BJP won 62 seats in the state and in 2014, 71 seats.

In this election, however, the BJP won only 33 seats in the state, while the socialist Samajwadi Party (SP), which had 5 seats in both 2014 and 2019, saw its vote share swell to 33.6% and its number of seats to 37, in one of the strongest comebacks of any party. The SP is popular among the Yadav community and Muslims, but this time around it expanded its vote base to other socially and economically marginalized communities, including the Dalits.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP lost in some key temple towns, such as Ayodhya, where Modi had inaugurated the Ram Mandir with a grand ceremony in January. The temple, built on the site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque, which was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992, had been one of the key projects of the Hindu right. The event was said to mark the unofficial start to the BJP’s election campaign, and the BJP was banking on the temple to help it achieve a clean sweep and win all 80 seats in the state.

However, when SP candidate Awadhesh Prasad, a veteran legislator from a Dalit community, won in Faizabad, the constituency where Ayodhya is located, it was one of the biggest upsets for the BJP.

In Varanasi, a holy pilgrimage town for Hindus, where Modi has fought as a candidate since 2014, he saw his winning margin reduced. In 2014, he won with a margin of over 400,000 votes, which increased in 2019 to over 674,000 votes. This time around, however, he won by just 152,000 votes.

Political journalists have attributed the loss in Uttar Pradesh to multiple causes. One of them is that the SP expanded its voter base to disadvantaged caste communities, Dalits and religious minorities. (Voting in the state, and India at large, often splits along caste and religious lines.) In addition, there was discontent within the local BJP cadre about candidates chosen by the central leadership in Delhi. “Warnings of local disconnect were ignored in the belief that the ‘Modi magic’ would override dissent and complaints,” wrote Shyamlal Yadav and Bhupendra Pandey in the Indian Express. Preelection surveys had revealed that employment and inflation were the two main voter concerns ahead of the elections.

Modi’s pitch to secure over 400 seats for the NDA also backfired because it fostered a perception among the Dalits and disadvantaged caste communities that an absolute majority would enable the government to make alterations to the Constitution, a claim also made by several BJP leaders. This led to fears that the government could remove reservation quotas for them in government jobs and educational institutions. They saw it as an attack on the legacy of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the leading Dalit reformer and intellectual known as “the father of the Indian Constitution.”

The year 2024 thus marks the return of coalition politics in India. The shift could be seen soon after the results as the branding changed from the “Modi government” to the “NDA government.” In his speeches since, Modi has mentioned the alliance multiple times, emphasizing its history and past successes and avoiding mentioning himself.

To many, the 2024 results also seem like a repeat of 2004, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP leader and then-prime minister was bidding for a second full term with his “India Shining” campaign but failed to return to power. Political analysts at that time similarly argued that the BJP had airbrushed realities on the ground and that overconfidence had led to complacency in the party.

That election marked the beginning of a decade of coalition rule in India, with the Congress party’s alliance forming the government for two terms until Modi came to power in 2014.

“This was what Indian politics looked like for decades prior to Modi’s emergence,” wrote Sharma in Bloomberg, recalling that era. “Many thought we were living in a new normal. Instead, the old normal has reasserted itself.”

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