India's Modi set for tougher ride after close election win

Indian Prime Minister Narendra 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. Picture: Arun SANKAR / AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra 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. Picture: Arun SANKAR / AFP

Published Jun 5, 2024


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced Wednesday the prospects of a far tougher-than-expected third term after his party failed to secure an outright majority for the first time since sweeping to power a decade ago.

The release of the results on Tuesday upended conventional wisdom throughout the six-week election that Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda would power him to a landslide win.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the outright parliamentary majority it had enjoyed during its first two terms, but is expected to still be able to rule leading an alliance of smaller parties.

The 73-year-old insisted on Tuesday night that the election results were a victory that ensured he would be able to continue his agenda, while his Hindu faithful celebrated across the country.

"Our third term will be one of big decisions and the country will write a new chapter of development. This is Modi's guarantee," Modi told a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital, New Delhi.

Constant worry

The BJP secured 240 seats in parliament, well down on the 303 from five years ago, and falling 32 seats of a majority.

In a remarkable turnaround, the main opposition Congress party won 99 seats, almost doubling its 2019 tally of 52.

"The country has said to Narendra Modi 'We don't want you'," opposition leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters.

"I was confident that the people of this country would give the right response."

Commentators and exit polls had projected an overwhelming victory for Modi, who critics have accused of leading the jailing of opposition figures and trampling on the rights of India's 200-million-plus Muslim community.

In a personal sting, Modi was re-elected to his constituency representing the Hindu holy city of Varanasi with a far lower margin of 152,300 votes — compared with nearly half a million votes five years ago.

Now dependent on coalition partners, the BJP will have to seek consensus to push its policies through parliament.

"The lurking possibility of them using their leverage, encouraged further by feelers from Congress and others in the opposition, is going to be a constant worry for BJP," the Times of India reported.

Modi now has to "suffer the fate of working with an alliance partner... who could pull the plug at any time", said Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of The Caravan magazine in New Delhi.

Among the independent lawmakers elected were two serving time in jail — firebrand Sikh separatist preacher Amritpal Singh, and Sheikh Abdul Rashid from Indian-administered Kashmir, who was arrested on charges of "terror funding" and money laundering in 2019.

Stocks slumped Tuesday on speculation the reduced majority would hamper the BJP's ability to push through reforms.

Shares in the main listed unit of Adani Enterprises — owned by key Modi ally Gautam Adani — nosedived 25 percent, before rebounding slightly.

Moral defeat

Celebrations had already begun at the headquarters of Modi's BJP before the full announcement of results on Tuesday.

But the mood at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi was also one of jubilation.

"BJP has failed to win a big majority on its own," Congress lawmaker Rajeev Shukla told reporters.

"It's a moral defeat for them."

Modi's opponents fought against a well-oiled and well-funded BJP campaign machine, and what they say are politically motivated criminal cases aimed at hobbling challengers.

Many of India's Muslim minority are increasingly uneasy about their futures and their community's place in the constitutionally secular country.

Modi himself made several strident comments about Muslims on the campaign trail, referring to them as “infiltrators”.

The polls were staggering in their size and logistical complexity, with 642 million voters casting their ballots — everywhere from megacities New Delhi and Mumbai to sparsely populated forest areas and the high-altitude Himalayas.

Based on the commission's figure of an electorate of 968 million, turnout came to 66.3%, down roughly one percentage point from 67.4% in the last polls in 2019.

Analysts partly blamed the lower turnout on a searing heatwave across northern India, with temperatures over 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).


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