Narendra Modi faces challenge to rule lacking outright majority, expert says

Prime Minister's Bharatiya Janata Party falls short for first time since he took office in 2014 as voters strengthen opposition's hand

Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens to Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda speak during the launch of the party manifesto in New Delhi in April. AP
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to continue in office for a third term but his political acumen will be tested by his party's failure to win an outright majority in Parliament, leaving his agenda at the mercy of coalition partners for the first time in his political career.

The Bharatiya Janata Party won majorities in the 2014 election that brought Mr Modi to power and again in 2019, allowing him to practise what his critics describe as an autocratic form of government, often passing laws with little consultation or debate. Even when the 73-year-old leader was head of the Gujarat government between 2002 and 2014, his administration had a majority in the state legislature.

The BJP won 240 seats in this year's election, final results released on Wednesday show, 63 fewer than in 2019 and short of the 272 needed for a majority, while the main opposition Indian National Congress party won 99, an increase of 47 from the previous election.

Mr Modi had accused the Congress-led coalition government elected in 2009 of “policy paralysis”, but as the election results began trickling in on Tuesday morning it became clear he would need to rely on smaller parties to stay in office, dealing a possibly fatal blow to his method of leadership.

“He never had to rule as a coalition leader; he's always had a majority, functioning as a one-man band,” Arathi Jerath, a Delhi-based political analyst, told The National. "That will have to change because he's going to have to take his coalition partners along with him and depend on them.

“He will have to change the style of functioning in Parliament and open channels to the opposition, revive parliamentary committees where discussions and debates take place on legislation policies."

Results hurt BJP image and agenda

The BJP's failure to increase its strength in Parliament is also a blow to Mr Modi's image as a strong leader who was "God sent", in his own words, to guide India to new heights.

Critics say Mr Modi’s government misused its electoral majority in Parliament to push through controversial legislation, some of it seen as promoting the BJP's Hindu nationalist ideology.

Within a month of winning the 2019 election, his government outlawed the Muslim practice of instant divorce. It also abrogated a constitutional provision giving the Muslim-majority Kashmir region semi-autonomous status and introduced a law to grant Indian nationality to non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries.

In its third term, the BJP had pledged to introduce a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – the law covering marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption – that would apply to all of India's various religious and ethnic groups, instead of allowing each to follow their scriptures and traditions in these matters as is the case currently.

Ms Jerath said one effect of the BJP having to work in coalition government would be to “put the brakes” on its Hindu supremacist agenda.

Many critics and even some BJP leaders had claimed that the party winning an even bigger majority this time – Mr Modi had targeted 370 seats – could allow it to amend India's secular constitution and turn the country into a theocratic Hindu state.

But this, too, is unlikely now, Ms Jerath said.

The BJP is relying on the Telugu Desam Party led by N Chandrababu Naidu, which won 16 seats in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal (United) party led by Nitish Kumar, which won 12 seats in the eastern state of Bihar.

Mr Naidu is a regionalist leader and has previously allied with the BJP whereas Mr Kumar is a socialist with a history of switching political allegiance.

“These are two very demanding regional leaders” Ms Jerath said. "Mr Naidu doesn’t have much of an equation with Modi whereas Nitish shares fractious relations with him.

“One thing is pretty clear, with the coalition the Hindu nationalist agenda will have to be put on a backburner as these leaders will not agree to divisive policies like UCC."

Opposition resurgence

Possibly a bigger surprise than the BJP's poor showing was the performance of the Congress party, which ruled India for almost 60 years since independence in 1947 but suffered a rapid electoral decline after Mr Modi’s ascent to power.

Written off by critics and political experts before the polls, Congress accounted for 99 of the 234 seats won by the INDIA opposition alliance formed to counter the BJP in this election.

The alliance delivered a blow to the BJP in the bellwether northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party won 37 seats and the Congress six, while Mr Modi's party managed only 33, down from 62 in 2019.

The result was a shock as the state is a hotbed of Hindu nationalist politics. Mr Modi had in January inaugurated a temple there dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Rama that was built on the site of a 16th-century mosque demolished by Hindu right-wing groups in 1992, fulfilling a longstanding promise of his party.

The Prime Minister spoke about the building of the temple in Ayodhya at every campaign stop, but the BJP lost the constituency in which it was built.

“It was an amazing fightback from [Congress leader] Rahul Gandhi and opposition leaders. What was interesting about this election is for the first time Modi was not setting the narrative, in fact, the BJP was on the defensive. It was responding to the narrative of opposition,” Ms Jerath said.

“The PM went to polarisation rhetoric to divert attention from the issues on the constitution, price rise and joblessness that the opposition was raising."

Updated: June 05, 2024, 5:02 PM