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BJP's Win Represents a Kind of Defeat. INDIA's Defeat Looks a Lot Like Victory

The BJP’s failure to secure even a simple majority has damaged Modi’s reputation.

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When the results of India’s general election were announced on 4 June, the biggest losers were the pundits and pollsters, who had almost unanimously predicted an overwhelming victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their exit-poll projections were so far off the mark in several states that one prominent pollster, appearing on India’s most popular English-language television channel, burst into tears on camera when the actual results were revealed.

To be sure, Modi’s BJP has been returned to power. But its victory looks more like a defeat. Far from expanding its formidable majority from 303 to 370 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament – as Modi and his principal lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, had predicted – the BJP lost 63 seats.

Indeed, the BJP now holds only 240 seats – well short of the 272 needed for a majority. With the allied regional parties in the National Democratic Alliance similarly falling short of Modi and Shah’s predictions, the BJP now must depend on a motley array of NDA allies to get any legislation passed.

The second-biggest loser was Modi himself. He made the election all about himself, seeking to capitalise on the personality cult that he has spent years promoting. His approach was shameless: COVID-19 vaccination certificates bore his photo, rather than that of the vaccinated person; bags of grain distributed to 800 million people were emblazoned with his image; railway stations across the country featured “selfie points,” where travellers could pose with life-size cutouts of Modi.

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So inflated were Modi’s delusions of grandeur that they apparently morphed into illusions of divinity. During the election campaign, he told one interviewer that he used to believe that he was biologically born, but had become convinced that he was sent directly by the Almighty to serve India. Some might find this cringeworthy, but the public seemed to lap it up: in one recent survey, Modi obtained a 75% approval rating.

Now, however, Modi is confronting the downside of his strategy: the BJP’s failure to secure even a simple majority has damaged Modi’s reputation not only in the eyes of Indian voters, but also within his own party, over which he has long enjoyed unchallenged dominance.

In fact, Modi has taken highly consequential decisions – such as the disastrous demonetisation of 2016 and the stringent pandemic lockdown in 2020 – without so much as a discussion with his cabinet. But this is likely to change, because prominent BJP figures and the leaders of the party’s now-indispensable allies can now be more assertive, thereby reining in Modi’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

Just as the BJP’s victory represents a kind of defeat, the resurgent opposition’s defeat looks a lot like victory. The opposition Indian National Congress (of which I am a member) and its partners in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) have much to celebrate.

The Congress party nearly doubled its seat total, from 52 to 99. And several of its INDIA allies – such as the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party of Uttar Pradesh, which secured 37 seats, and the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, which won 29 – performed better than ever before. With control of 232 seats, INDIA is now a formidable force. One can be certain that the Lok Sabha will no longer serve as a mere rubber stamp for Modi’s agenda.

A striking feature of the vote is the widespread rejection of the BJP’s Hindu-chauvinist Hindutva doctrine. The BJP lost several formerly “safe” seats in constituencies where Modi’s campaign rhetoric had been the most Hindu-centric and inflammatory, including Ayodhya, where he inaugurated a magnificent new temple in January.

In fact, opposition parties made significant gains in the “Hindutva heartland” of northern India, including states where the BJP juggernaut crushed the opposition alliance in 2019. The political map of India is now distinctly multi-hued.

The biggest winner of the recent election is undoubtedly Indian democracy, which has come under increasing strain during Modi’s decade in power. This is reflected in the beating India has taken on global indices. Freedom House has now downgraded India from “free” to “partly free,” while the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute has reclassified it as an “electoral autocracy.” With the BJP in charge, India has become a prime example of “democratic de-consolidation” around the world.

Likewise, India now ranks 111th out of 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index, and 159th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. The German foreign ministry has expressed concerns about declining press freedom, while the British government questioned the banning in India of a BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

Others have raised related concerns. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is worried about the treatment of minorities, and the US State Department has sounded the alarm over human-rights abuses more broadly. The World Health Organisation took issue with the BJP government’s unconvincing COVID-19 mortality figures, and the World Bank pushed back against India’s rejection of its human-capital index.

Fortunately, these trends are now set to be reversed. India’s opposition is determined to continue fighting to restore an older vision of India, in which, to quote the immortal words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high.”

I wrote last month that “change is in the air” in India. Well, change has now arrived, and most Indians will breathe more freely as a result.

[Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress. He is the author, most recently, of Ambedkar: A Life (Aleph Book Company, 2022). This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.]

(This commentary originally appeared in Project Syndicate and has been republished in collaboration with The Quint. Read the original piece here.)

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