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Narendra Modi is no longer an invincible force in India. Where does he go from here?

Most pundits and exit polls predicted a big win for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s massive six-week election that just came to a close.

They were wrong. Instead, many voters in key battleground states cast their ballots for opposition parties, cutting the BJP’s tally of seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower hour of parliament, from 303 to 240.

Together with their coalition partners, the BJP should retain power with a slim majority of 21 seats. Modi will serve a rare third term as India’s prime minister. But for the first time in a decade, both the prime minister and his party no longer look invincible.

BJP supporters gather for rally in Varanasi.
BJP supporters gather to greet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a roadshow in Varanasi in May. Rajesh Kumar/AP

So, what went wrong?

It will be a while before detailed post-election surveys are published, with robust data on why Indians voted as they did. But from what we already know, we can identify a few factors that might explain why support for the BJP has waned.

The BJP went into the election campaign claiming great successes in economic management. Under the stewardship of the Modi government, as the party’s manifesto declared, India has emerged as the fastest-growing major economy in the world. It is currently ranked number five and Modi had set the ambitious goal of rising to third by the end of the decade.

The BJP had made other big promises for a third Modi term: to make India more self-reliant and resilient to global shocks, as well as to improve its infrastructure, generate more power and attract more foreign investment in manufacturing.

Yet, what it lacked – and what may have swayed some voters – was a credible plan to boost employment and curb inflation. The BJP’s track record in both areas is not good.

India needs to create jobs for tens of millions of young and ambitious Indians entering the workforce ever year, but it has struggled to do that in recent years. This has led many to move abroad, even to countries in conflict zones.

Moreover, it needs to stabilise prices, which have increased at annual rate of 5–6% in recent years.

A young woman wearing a virtual reality headset.
An Indian student uses a virtual reality device for learning at a public digital library in Chennai in 2023. Idrees Mohammed/EPA

Fear and favour

Another issue that likely swayed some voters was the possible fate of positive discrimination schemes for education and public sector employment known as “caste reservations”.

Designed to improve social mobility for historically marginalised caste groups and communities, these schemes have become politically contentious in a society where good schools and good jobs are scarce.

The BJP has long been ideologically sceptical about reservations, arguing – among other things – they are socially divisive, pitting caste against caste and community against community.

Some Hindu nationalists also see these schemes as standing in the way of consolidating all Hindus into one unassailable social and political bloc.

During the election campaign, these arguments were highlighted by opposition parties, which claimed the BJP planned to abolish reservations or even amend India’s Constitution to ban them outright.

And it seems that fear this might have prompted many lower caste Indians to switch their votes to parties pledging to defend reservations, like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

Modi fatigue

A third factor shaping voter behaviour may well prove to be a loss of enthusiasm for Modi himself.

Modi’s personal popularity has remained very high by both Indian and global standards for more than a decade – and for good reason.

He is a charismatic and effective communicator, but his capacity for reinventing his image has arguably been his greatest asset. At different points in his career, he has been able to project himself as a firebrand, a technocratic moderniser, a humble servant of the people and an adroit diplomat.

Recently, however, Modi has cast himself as a distant, almost priestly and otherworldly figure. In the days before the election results were announced this week, the prime minister withdrew to a beach to meditate for 45 hours. In interviews, he has spoken of being chosen by god for his role.

These actions led at least one opposition leader to comment that Modi was saying “all kinds of things that made no sense”. Some voters may have shared that view.

Modi’s broader Hindu project in doubt

For ten years, the BJP has also worked hard to establish a dominant position in India’s political system. To win over voters, it has improved infrastructure in the cities and extended India’s rudimentary welfare state to improve the lives of women and the rural poor.

Ultimately, however, the BJP aims not just to develop India, but to ensure all aspects of Indian society reflect what it sees as the values of the Hindu majority.

To do that, the Modi government has tried to unite all Hindu voters – around 80% of the population – with high-profile religious and cultural appeals, like the construction of a much-vaunted new Ram temple at the holy city of Ayodhya.

The result of this election suggests this project has not – so far, at least – succeeded. In a striking development, the BJP failed to hold the parliamentary seat (Faizabad) where Ayodhya is located.

It is not yet clear what lessons Modi and the BJP will take from this election. Tethered to coalition partners with more leverage than before, the incoming government will be more constrained than its predecessors. As the dust settles, one thing is clear: this election has transformed India’s political landscape.

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