Inside Story

The Union makes us strong

Narendra Modi’s BJP took India’s diverse regions for granted and suffered the consequences

Robin Jeffrey 7 June 2024 1234 words

Doubling down: Narendra Modi at the Bhartiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi on election night. Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A number of factors help explain the surprising electoral setback to Narendra Modi and his Hindu-supremacist program for India. But the most significant is being overlooked. India’s greatest achievement since independence has been its capacity to manage and nurture an immensely plural entity. The constitution of 1950 recognises this diversity when it refers to “the Union” of India.

India’s federation, and the efficient, democratic voting system that underpins it, are essential. And, as this election has shown, components of the Union will bridle at attempts by a central authority to impose a single, tight control.

For the ruling BJP the result was immensely disappointing. From 300 seats in the outgoing Lok Sabha (lower house) its total has fallen to 243. It can only put together roughly 295 seats — enough to control a house of 543 members — with the support of its allied parties.

Unemployment, cost of living increases and the lack of continuing wage-paying jobs were all seen as minuses for the BJP during the campaign, but most analysts discounted them in favour of the powerful attraction of its signature programs of infrastructure, direct benefits to poorer people, temple-building and Muslim-bashing.

What they hadn’t considered was that the digital revolution now touches every corner of the country. Even the poorest of India’s 900 million broadband subscribers can consume a banquet of digital data, entertainment and information. The glitzy lives of the rich and the comforts of the growing middle class are on daily show to very large numbers of struggling people, especially in rural north India.

After working her way through some of those regions in March, the veteran journalist Tavleen Singh described “broken roads and squalid villages… clouds of dust and the stench of rotting garbage… windowless kitchens in which women sat on grimy floors cooking midday meals… and the dilapidated unclean toilets that rural schoolchildren are forced to use.” Through the wonders of the smartphone, class contrasts confront the rural poor every day.

Singh was travelling in Uttar Pradesh, the vast north Indian state of 240 million people that was the keystone of the BJP’s election successes in 2014 and 2019. With its allies, it won more than seventy of the state’s eighty seats in those elections; this time it struggled to win a mere twenty-nine seats.

Across the board, the BJP lost ninety seats in its own right, though it mitigated the loss by picking up thirty new ones, for a net loss of sixty. In an election they expected to win handsomely, Narendra Modi and his party were reduced to dependence on their “alliance partners,” the smaller regional parties whose leaders can now drive hard bargains in return for their support for a minority or coalition government.

The gains the BJP expected where it already had footholds didn’t come to pass. In the eight small states of the northeast, the party and its allies had held thirteen of twenty-five seats. This time, they won only eleven. In West Bengal, where it had held eighteen seats, the BJP hoped for a breakthrough that would make life difficult for Mamta Banerjee, the long-serving chief minister. Instead, it lost six seats.

Of the thirty new seats the party did win, twenty came in the state of Odisha on the east coast. Odisha had been ruled for more than twenty years by a local party and a chieftain whose father had also been chief minister. The BJP leap from nil to twenty was partly driven by the exhausted patience of voters and their readiness to try something different.

Overall, the BJP and its allies will have about 295 members in the new parliament (240 of them from the BJP), a slightly fragile majority when the allies can be skittish. The Congress party, led by the offspring of three past prime ministers, Rahul Gandhi, has ninety-nine seats and its multi-member opposition alliance a total of about 230. That alliance’s main components are locally based parties in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Mamta Banerjee’s West Bengal.

Will this setback chasten Mr Modi? Or will it steel his determination to transform India into a Hindu-supremacist state? His words after the election suggest the latter.

He welcomed the victory, only the second time an Indian prime minister has won three consecutive elections. It was a win for the Janata Janardan — the god of the people — he told his audience. His followers have taken up the theme, saying that the result exposes the lies foreign media and Indian anti-nationals were spreading about the feebleness of the Election Commission, formed of three members appointed by a selection committee of the prime minister, a cabinet colleague and the leader of the opposition. The commission’s enforcement of its own model code of conduct during the seven-week campaign could, at best, be described as languid.

Mr Modi has never lost an election. He was parachuted into the chief minister’s chair in Gujarat in 2001 and then won three state elections and two national elections. Conventional parliamentary debate is not his style. He addresses audiences and gives dictation to journalists, but isn’t accustomed to answering questions.

Now, however, he will be forced to depend on at least forty allied MPs. His three biggest allies, who together can deliver the thirty-five or forty seats he needs to govern, are led by sly old veterans, each one experienced as the chief minister of a major state. Already, one of them is angling for a larger cut of the central government’s goods and services tax.

With Mr Modi now seventy-three, the result also means increased speculation on the theme, “After Modi, who?” Two of the leading names may find themselves blamed for the heavy losses in Uttar Pradesh.

Yogi Adityanath, fifty-two, UP’s two-time BJP chief minister, dresses in saffron as a Hindu holy man and has a reputation as the tough guy who tames the lawless and doesn’t let due process get in the way. The BJP has used him as a star performer, and he was expected to deliver most of the state’s seats. Some observers suggest that powerful BJP leaders, notably Amit Shah, sixty-one, will welcome the chance to make Adityanath the fall guy for the losses. The latter’s defenders, however, will claim that unwise interference by the campaign managers (code for Amit Shah) led to the setbacks.

Such distractions, plus the need to work with parliament rather than regard it as an annoying obstacle, will slow down the Hindu-supremacist project of the BJP and its associated organisations. For those who feared another overwhelming BJP victory, this is as favourable a result as they could have realistically hoped for.

This election carries lessons for the BJP and its attempts to create a homogenised, quick-shake India with a decreed version of what it is to be a Hindu and a citizen. Mr Modi may have calculated that he and the BJP had generated nationwide enthusiasm that would overcome local considerations. He was the indefatigable, irrepressible star of the campaign and Amit Shah, long-time organisation man, was its chief operating officer. But this impressive political machine has been reminded that a centralising leader and his party cannot dictate the political tuning in every region.

The Indian state over the past four generations has been reinforced and sustained by the play of politics and the willingness of most areas, most of the time, to believe it was worth being part of “the Union.” •