‘Humbling moment’: What will Modi 3.0 look like for India?

As Modi prepares to be sworn in with a reduced mandate, analysts and critics say allies he depends on could serve as a check on his government.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays a letter from the President of India, Draupadi Murmu, inviting him to form the next central government, outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays a letter from the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, inviting him to form the next central government, outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 7, 2024 [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – Vishal Paliwal, a 57-year-old worker of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spent Tuesday afternoon sleeping at home as India counted over 640 million votes cast in its national election.

A granite stone trader in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, Paliwal lost his livelihood after Modi announced an overnight lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Paliwal stayed loyal to the BJP. In the elections that just got over, too, he could not bring himself to go out and vote for the opposition.

Yet, a switch had flipped for him. “I could not get myself to vote for the BJP either,” said Paliwal.

By the time Paliwal woke up from his siesta, the nation had changed, too. The BJP had lost its majority, in a stunning verdict that defied exit polls, reduced to 240 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha – India’s lower house of parliament – down from the 303 it had won in 2019. It is still poised to form the next government with a clutch of regional partners under its National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But Paliwal said the drop in the party’s numbers represented a necessary course correction for the nation.

“I was delighted to see the results,” said Paliwal. “People have chosen an opposition, not a government, by voting this time. We really needed this.”

As Modi prepares to take the oath on Sunday for his third term in office, his depleted mandate could shape what India’s next government looks like, said analysts. Already, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)  and the Janata Dal (United), the two biggest allies Modi depends on to reach the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha, are believed to have made tough demands of the BJP – from high-profile positions in the Cabinet and as speaker of the house to a common governance programme.

The BJP insists its third straight term in office will be smooth. “These are baseless, misguided fears,” Zafar Islam, BJP national spokesperson, told Al Jazeera. “Everyone in NDA has faith in the leadership of PM Modi – the way the government was run for the last 10 years, it will be the same. There is no disconnect between our partners at all.”

Yet, both the TDP and the JD(U) insist they are secular parties, and count Muslim voters among their support base. The BJP has been accused of trying to plaster over hate crimes, high unemployment, rising inflation and soaring inequality using Hindu majoritarian politics. Now, these allies, serving as key pillars holding up the government, could serve as a check on Modi, said analysts and rights activists.

“Indian voters have collectively secured that Modi will not be able to function as a dictator like the last 10 years,” said Harsh Mander, a prominent rights activist who once served as a bureaucrat. “There is no evidence he was even consulting with his cabinet before any major decision. And that’s over now, hopefully.”

INTERACTIVE-INDIA-BJP and alliances claim victory _BJP_JUNE5_2024_edit-1717605880

‘Vote for the lesser evil’

Afreen Fatima, a 26-year-old Muslim activist, was shuttling between her home and courts trying to get her detained father Javed Mohammad released, when police officials in riot gear surrounded her home in June 2022. Mohammad had been picked up by the police over protests in their hometown, Prayagraj, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, against anti-Islam remarks by a member of Modi’s party, which had triggered an international backlash against New Delhi.

State authorities, ruled by BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, brought in earthmovers to bulldoze the building Fatima called home for years, following a tactic that Amnesty International has described as deliberate “punishment to the Muslim community”.

Two years later, as Modi referenced a series of a anti-Muslim tropes during the election campaign, Fatima said she felt the BJP’s pitch was “humiliating and dehumanising”.

“I hope that the BJP has been humbled by this mandate that will put an end to their arrogance,” she said. The BJP lost Fatima’s parliamentary district, Prayagraj, by over 50,000 votes. It lost all four districts surrounding the controversial Ram Temple, built on the site of the demolished 16th-century Babri mosque, and inaugurated by Modi in January in what effectively marked the launch of his re-election campaign.

Yet, Fatima says, too much hope is dangerous. “I’m not sure if it was a vote against anti-incumbency or a vote against hate. Or if the hate has been defeated at all,” she said. “With a lack of alternatives, we vote for the lesser evil to defeat the bigger monster.”

Fatima is also troubled by the lack of representation of the Muslim community within the opposition alliance, and in the Indian parliament, as well. In fact, the number of Muslim candidates fielded by all the parties dropped from 115 to 78 from the last election in 2019. Only 24 of them have been elected to Parliament, the lowest since independence.

Meanwhile, hate speech has soared in India in recent years. India averaged nearly two anti-Muslim hate speech events per day in 2023 and three in every four of those events – or 75 percent – took place in states ruled by Modi’s BJP, as per a report by the India Hate Lab (IHL), a United States-based research group.

FILE- Officials watch as a bulldozer razes the wall of a local mosque in the area that saw communal violence during a Hindu religious procession on Saturday, in New Delhi's northwest Jahangirpuri neighborhood, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Protests have been erupting in many Indian cities to condemn the demolition of homes and businesses belonging to Muslims, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice” aimed at punishing activists from the minority group. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)
Officials watch as a bulldozer razes the wall of a local mosque in New Delhi’s northwest Jahangirpuri neighbourhood, on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Rights groups have accused Indian authorities of a growing pattern of ‘bulldozer justice’ aimed at punishing Muslims [Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

‘Hope we are getting our country back’

But it is not only Muslims whom critics accuse Modi of targeting. In February this year, investigative agencies raided multiple premises linked to Mander, the rights activist, over allegations that he had received foreign donations without adequate government approvals. Mander denies the allegations. Two opposition chief ministers have been jailed on corruption charges in recent months, and homes and offices of other opposition political leaders have been raided.

In the days after the raids against him, Mander said he felt troubled and isolated. He said he wondered: “Was India always this country? Have we lost the secular republic?” The election results, he said, had reaffirmed his faith in Indian democracy.

Meanwhile, Modi’s return to the office will also sharpen a conundrum for the US and Western countries, said Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute. The dilemma, he said was about “how to square the reality of the strategic importance of engaging with India [as a counterweight to China in the region] while the country slides toward illiberalism”.

“The results were a very humbling moment for [the BJP and Modi],” said Kugelman. “Modi will no longer be seen as invincible, and the opposition will no longer be dead in the water. And if the BJP needs to govern in a coalition, it will need to scale back some of its expectations and ambitions.”

For now, Modi and the BJP are underscoring the rarity of their accomplishment as they move towards forming India’s next government. Modi will become only the second Indian leader after Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, to return to power after a third consecutive election. But choppy waters might lie ahead for Modi and Amit Shah, India’s home minister who is widely seen as the prime minister’s deputy.

“The exit [of any public figure] defines the lingering image,” said Dilip Cherian, a renowned political strategist and image consultant. “And the exit route may not be as calm for Modi and Shah.”

Mander said that “there is a hope that we are getting our country back”. Yet, he suggested, it would be naive of the BJP’s critics to think that the election had served as an antidote to the social tensions that have deepened in India in recent years. “This election has created space [for Modi critics] but it will not resolve the core crisis of hate in the Indian society,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera