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IndiaScope: Winning and Losing in the Indian Election

By Tinaz Pavri Email By Tinaz Pavri
July 2024
IndiaScope: Winning and Losing in the Indian Election

PM Narendra Modi has returned for a third term. But the reality is that though the BJP retains power at the center, it lost scores of seats in parliament and is now forced to rule as a coalition with its two partners, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Janata Dal (JDU).

The results seemed to surprise people and pundits on all sides, coming, as they did, on the heels of published exit polls that predicted an overwhelming victory of close to 400 seats for Modi and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The cry of “400 paar” rang out in premature triumph, and the demise of Rahul and the Gandhis once and for all was anticipated. But as the actual results trickled in, it became clear that the NDA was falling surprisingly short in the total vote count and racking up defeats in erstwhile strongholds like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, The loss in Ayodhya, the recent scene of the Ram Mandir inauguration, was the biggest surprise.

The postmortem lends itself to a number of interpretations: one as Indians taking their democracy back and reviving a healthy opposition after a decade of increasing one-party rule. This view underlines India’s essentially pluralist and secular roots and believes that more Indians were tired of the “great man” politics that the ruling party and the PM became associated with.

Another is a more pragmatic analysis. The economy, while robust overall, was offering the greatest benefits to the rich, while the country’s middle and underclasses continued to struggle. Taxes were raised on the fragile middle class, while the rich reaped the rewards of a spectacular stock market. The youth wanted jobs, but there weren’t enough created. Infrastructure projects overwhelmed cities, but they created environmental damage and hardship in their wake that affected daily life.

Yet another explanation could point to the role of social media—for many years, a great asset under a skillful BJP IT team that ruled the internet and other media. This time, the opposition parties put up a better show and were joined by individual young social media influencers with tens of millions of followers, who seemed to make it fashionable again to think of the opposition without derision or dismissal, while on the other hand opening a space for challenging the government, something that would once not have withstood a skillful ruling party pushback.

I would also add to these the fact that all electoral democracies see changing fortunes for sitting parties, no matter how popular they might have become, and India was perhaps simply ready for a change after more than a decade of dominance by the same faces. Lower caste, poor, and minority voters went more decisively in favor of the opposition than they have in a while.

It is important, however, not to read too much into the results. Ultimately, of course, Modi has been returned as the PM for a record third term in the post-Congress era, and has to date been successful in keeping his coalition together while still preserving the most important cabinet posts of finance, home affairs, defense, and foreign affairs for his party. He is projecting stability and strength, carefully calibrating remarks to seemingly account for humble learning that has occurred as a result of the election.

The election result will have no effect on India’s foreign policy agenda, around which all parties have usually seemed to form a significant consensus. This will be a good thing for the world, which needs now more than ever the calm and independent voice of India as a counter to the increasingly rash moves by all parties engaged in the raging conflicts of our times. Indeed, India’s challenges in the foreign policy arena do not come from the West, which has an unprecedented need and respect for India, but from its closer Asian sphere where China, of course, will continue to be reckoned with. There will also be continuity in the economic sphere, with investments in infrastructure and manufacturing continuing, and big ideas continuing to dominate. The Modi government will have to turn with renewed urgency, however, to the issue of jobs, opportunities, training and welfare for the masses, many of whom turned their backs on it in this election even as India climbed the ranks towards world power status.

Tinaz Pavri is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Spelman College, Atlanta. A recipient of the Donald Wells Award from the Georgia Political Science Association, she’s the author of the memoir Bombay in the Age of Disco: City, Community, Life.

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