Q+A  

India’s Surprising Election Results A “Watershed Moment”

Expecting to be returned to power with a resounding mandate, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was instead humbled as India’s voters “sprung a surprise,” said HKS Assistant Professor of Public Policy Gautam Nair. Nair, who studies the politics of inequality and redistribution with a special focus on South Asia, discussed how handwringing over the erosion of India’s democracy under Modi may be premature as his Hindu nationalist message seemingly failed to resonate across much of the electorate.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected an aura of confidence going into India's parliamentary elections, but his party ultimately failed to achieve an outright majority.

It appears that incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s majority in parliament shrank considerably, in contrast to expectations that this election would cement his hold on power. Why has he fallen short of expectations?

Gautam Nair: As in many previous elections, India’s voters have sprung a surprise. It was widely expected that the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP would return to power in the Lok Sabha, India’s national parliament, in part because of the personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP set expectations high with the slogan “Ab ki baar, char sau (400) paar,” promising that it would cross 400 seats in India’s 543-member national parliament. For comparison, the BJP won 303 seats in the 2019 elections (31 more than the 272 majority mark) and its allies pocketed an additional 50 seats. The 2014 and 2019 elections, which inaugurated and then consolidated the current era of BJP dominance, were a surprise to scholars, because most expected the continuation of the era of fragmented coalitions that ruled India for the quarter century before. The fact that the BJP and Modi were able to overcome India’s social and political heterogeneity to build big majorities was thus remarkable.

After a lengthy multi-phase election in 2024, polls closed on June 1. Exit surveys that were broadcast across the media suggested the BJP would come close to its goal and substantially increase its majority, potentially opening the way far-reaching changes in India’s political institutions during five more years of BJP rule. Instead, the BJP finds itself with a diminished majority, and looks set to win about 240 seats, with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition accounting for about 50 more. Suddenly, Modi will likely be a Prime Minister at the head of a genuine coalition and face a rejuvenated opposition alliance that has won about 233 seats.

Already there is much talk of an NDA government rather than a BJP or Modi government, even among BJP leaders. Still the BJP will likely lead the government at the national level and for the first time in the state of Odisha (which held simultaneous state elections) and expanded its reach elsewhere.

The elections are a watershed moment.

I, for one, have felt that talk of the world’s largest democracy’s putative descent into authoritarianism was premature because of the competition that the BJP has consistently faced, especially at the state level—and India’s many internal divisions that can be mobilized by canny political entrepreneurs. Gautam Nair headshot

Gautam Nair

Assistant Professor of Public Policy

How was India’s fractured opposition able to mount such a seemingly effective campaign against Modi and his governing BJP?

Nair: I, for one, have felt that talk of the world’s largest democracy’s putative descent into authoritarianism was premature because of the competition that the BJP has consistently faced, especially at the state level—and India’s many internal divisions that can be mobilized by canny political entrepreneurs. It is worth remembering that the BJP won about 37% of the national vote in 2019; it is just that India’s first-past-the-post electoral system translates a minority of votes into a majority of seats. A small swing in votes the other way can translate into a large loss of seats as well.

State-level parties like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have especially outperformed expectations, suggesting the continuing importance of local strength, and the Indian National Congress (INC), under Rahul Gandhi, made the sound decision to set pride aside and give lots of seats to its coalition partners. While these parties may have mounted effective campaigns, other factors also contributed to this result including the Indian electorate’s tendency to vote incumbents out, the consolidation of the votes of embattled minorities, and perhaps a sense that the government was not delivering on its economic promises amidst jobless growth and inflation. Still, while they came close, India’s voters did not hand power to the opposition Congress Party and its allies, which have claimed, in Gandhi’s words a “moral victory.”

Did Modi’s Hindu nationalist platform and attempts to further flame the country’s simmering sectarian divisions ultimately undermine his campaign? What does this say for the salience of those issues?

Nair: It is hard to say. The completion of a temple on the site of a destroyed medieval mosque in Ayodhya, which the BJP holds was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, was a centerpiece of the BJP’s campaign. And Modi made several remarks that were seen to be targeting minorities. Gandhi argued that the Prime Minister had encouraged an atmosphere of hate. Just how many voters are primarily motivated by symbolic and identity-based issues, or Gandhi’s appeals to inclusion, is not known.

As is the case elsewhere, I tend to think most voters are motivated by bread-and-butter issues, and I think that the opposition has done better by emphasizing issues of corruption, prices, or jobs, as the INC did last year to wrest control of the large and wealthy state of Karnataka from the BJP. The BJP will probably find it harder to emphasize explicitly sectarian issues, though it also argues that it runs the country and its programs in the national interest, without favoring one group over another. Sectarian and social divisions have always run below the surface of India’s polity; the logic of electoral competition brings them to the surface, but the same logic can lead to dynamic and even unlikely alliances. I don’t expect those tendences to fundamentally shift, but I hold out hope that India’s system can ensure inclusion and peace.

If the BJP is not able to secure an outright majority, who would be likely coalition partners, and what impact would they have on the policies of the next Indian government?

Nair: The BJP has several coalition partners. Two to watch are Chandrababu Naidu, who is the leader of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and looks set to return as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, who has made lots of opportunistic alliances over the years, and once more finds himself on the right side of the bargaining table. Together they will have the 25-30 seats that will give the NDA its majority. They haven’t announced any plans to jump ship, but they will likely drive a hard bargain, and the people of those states can expect a very favorable hearing in Delhi, in addition to a minister or two in the cabinet. They are also not much interested in communal politics, since they rely on minority voters, and Naidu runs a southern state where appeals to Hindu nationalism don’t have the same resonance. I also think that the division of seats is such that a looming North-South cleavage may have been defused to some extent. The BJP will probably also seek to pad its majority to avoid being held up at legislative gunpoint by enlisting politicians who are thus far uncommitted to one side or the other—or encouraging opportunism in the opposition ranks.

Many observers bemoaned Modi’s embrace of nationalist and sectarian rhetoric, to say nothing about the increasing coziness between many Indian business leaders and the BJP as undermining the country’s democratic institutions. What do the results say about the resilience of India’s democracy as a result?

Nair: I think that some of the observers you mention have a much rosier view of India’s past than I do and have been consequently too pessimistic about its present. As someone who favors robust competition and thinks that no party has a perpetual monopoly of good ideas or good government, I find much to be optimistic about in the results.