Indian voters put brakes on Modi authoritarian rule

Modi campaining in 2024 Indian Elections at a Sikh Temple (Gurdwara) Credit : Personal Photo

Shashi Tharoor explains how Modi’s personality-cultish confidence backfired to leave the ruling party bereft of a majority

The Indian electorate has once more shown its capacity to overturn conventional wisdom. When results in India’s protracted 18th General Elections were announced on June 4th, the biggest losers were the pundits and pollsters, who had confidently and unanimously projected an overwhelming victory for Prime Minister Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The numbers they had released in their “exit polls” on June 1 were so completely off the mark in several states that their credibility was shot to pieces and one prominent pollster, for the most popular English language television channel, burst into tears on camera when the actual results came out. 

Prime Minister Modi ‘s BJP has returned to power, but with a victory that looks like a defeat, while the resurgent opposition has recorded a defeat that looks like a victory.

The prime minister and his principal lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, had pitched expectations extremely high by claiming their party would improve its formidable majority and reach a total of 370 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, by itself, while the National Democratic Alliance (which puts the BJP with a clutch of regional parties) would cross 400.

Not only did neither of these happen, but the BJP’s seat-share in the Lok Sabha collapsed from 303 to 241, well short of the majority mark of 272. This has left it hopelessly dependent on a motley collection of allies to survive and to pass its budgets or any other important legislation in the house. 

The second biggest loser on June 4 was undoubtedly Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. He had made the election, his party and the nation all about himself, and appeared to be succeeding in the effort. In recent years, his manufacturing of a personality cult had exceeded all known limits: Covid vaccination certificates came with his picture rather than with the picture of the vaccinated individual, bags of grain distributed to 800 million people bore his photograph prominently on the packages, and railway stations across the country featured “selfie points“, where life sized cutouts of the Prime Minister were available for grateful voters to pose next to. Despite the cringeworthy aspects of this kind of conduct, the public appeared to lap it all up, with Mr Modi) obtaining 74% approval ratings in a recent survey of global leaders. 

However, the downside of conducting an electoral contest around one individual is that a below-par performance also reflects badly on that individual. The BJP’s failure to even score a simple majority on its own is widely perceived as having damaged Modi not only nationally, but inside his own party, which was used to taking orders from him and his aides without any discussion.

Far-reaching decisions, such as the demonetisation in 2016 of much of the national currency, and the proclamation in 2020 of a stringent national lockdown to face the Covid pandemic, were all taken by Mr Modi without even discussion in the cabinet. It is likely now that other prominent BJP leaders, and undoubtedly the leaders of the now-indispensable allied parties within the National Democratic alliance (NDA), will assert themselves much more, thereby arresting Mr Modi’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

Mr. Modi had also become a prisoner, not only of his own delusions of grandeur, but even of illusions of divinity, which included his telling an interviewer that while he had used to believe that he was biologically born, he is now convinced that he was sent directly by the Almighty to serve India. Such notions underscored both his own sense of invincibility and reinforced his supporters’ perceptions of the inevitability of his triumphs. We are likely to hear less of such kind of talk after these election results. 

          The opposition Indian National Congress party and its allies in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, have multiple reasons to celebrate. The Congress party nearly doubled its seat share from 52 in the 2019 elections to 99 in 2024. Several of the opposition Alliance parties performed better than their best performance to date, notably the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party of Uttar Pradesh, which shot up to 37 Lok Sabha seats and the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, which rose to 29.

The INDIA coalition now enjoys elevated numbers in the Lok Sabha, with 232 MPs making it a formidable force in the new Parliament. The national legislature can no longer be regarded as a notice-board for the government’s announcements and a rubber-stamp for the Prime Minister’s decisions – a status to which it had appeared to be reduced in the course of Mr Modi’s increasingly autocratic second term. 

One of the most striking features of the vote so far is the rejection by so many voters of the ruling party’s increasingly strident Hindu-chauvinist doctrine of Hindutva. Strikingly, the BJP lost several formerly “safe” seats in constituencies where the prime minister’s election campaign rhetoric had been the most Hindu-centric and inflammatory, including the temple town of Ayodhya, where he had just inaugurated a magnificent new temple in January.

The “Hindu heartland” of Hindi-speaking states across northern India witnessed significant gains by opposition parties, including in states where the opposition alliance had previously been blanked out by the BJP’s juggernaut in 2019. The map of India’s political geography now wears a distinctly multi-hued look.

The biggest victory on June 4 is undoubtedly that of Indian democracy, which had seemed beleaguered over the last decade of Mr Modi’s BJP rule. During the Modi years, India has found itself the subject of “concerns” raised by, among others, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (on the treatment of minorities), the German foreign ministry (on press freedom), the UK (on the banning of a BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom), the World Health Organization (on our government’s unconvincing estimate of India’s COVID-19 death toll), the World Bank (on India’s “human capital”) and the US State Department (on human rights generally).

India under Modi rule has taken a beating on global indices, from the World Press Freedom Index (which ranks India 150 out of 180 countries) to the Global Hunger Index (which places it at 107 out of 121). India has also been downgraded in the Freedom House Democracy Index (which marks it as only “partly free”) and shamed by the well-known Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute’s classification of India as an “electoral autocracy.” The country had become a prominent exhibit in what scholars describe as a process of “democratic de-consolidation” around the world.

The June 4 results should inaugurate a reversal of these trends. The Opposition parties are determined to continue fighting in Parliament to restore an older idea of India — one where, in Tagore’s immortal words, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.

I wrote in a syndicated column last month that “change is in the air”. It has now come, and most Indians will breathe more freely as a result.

Shashi Tharoor was re-elected as an opposition Congress Party Member of Parliament for a fourth successive term, representing Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha.

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is an Indian politician, historian, public intellectual, writer, and former diplomat, who has been serving as Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, since 2009. He is the present Chairman of the Standing Committee on Chemicals and Fertilizers. He was formerly an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and unsuccessfully ran for the post of Secretary-General in 2006. Founder-Chairman of All India Professionals Congress, he formerly served as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and on Informational Technology. He has about two dozen titles to his credit and was awarded by World Economic Forum as "Global Leader of Tomorrow"

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