India: a Pyrrhic Victory for Narendra Modi

5 juin 2024
Le point de vue de Olivier Da Lage

It was a mixed victory for outgoing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For the first time since 2014, the government strongman and his BJP party have lost the absolute majority they held in Parliament. With a clear increase in the number of votes cast, the opposition, and in particular the Indian National Congress party, is calling this a ‘moral defeat’ for Modi and the BJP. The outcome of 77 days of voting raises a number of questions. How were the elections conducted? What lessons can be drawn from the results? Could this have an influence on India’s international positions? Olivier Da Lage, Associate Research Fellow at IRIS, specialising in India and the Arabian Peninsula, provides some answers.

What was the political, economic and social context in which the Indian legislative elections were held? With 970 million voters expected, the largest elections in history, how did the voting go?

The actual polling took place in seven phases between 19 April and 1 June, a total of 77 days! This was an exceptionally long period, even though it is usual in India for voting to take place in several phases, given the size of the country. This means that the security forces responsible for ensuring that the electoral process runs smoothly can be deployed to the various States in turn. But this extension of the voting period has the effect of changing the tone of the campaign as it progresses. Some candidates have not yet been declared, and operations have already been completed in other parts of the country. The campaign themes also evolve according to how the campaign is perceived at the start (and of course also according to the themes specific to each region). All in all, the elections themselves took place in a calm and orderly manner, apart from a few localized incidents of violence that are customary in the country’s electoral history. However, the operations were also marked by the opposition’s strong defiance of the Election Commission, a constitutional body made up of three people appointed by the government and which had just been reshuffled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The fact that the Election Commission, contrary to custom, refused to publish the absolute figures for voter turnout, contenting itself with giving percentages – before changing its position, abruptly and without explanation, added to the confusion, as did the refusal to confirm, until the day before the count, that the ballot papers sent in by post would be counted before starting to count the results from the voting machines. At the end of the campaign and at the start of the voting process, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP was tipped as the clear winner, even announcing that it was aiming for 400 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (National Assembly). In the outgoing legislature, the BJP had an absolute majority with 303 seats, making the NDA alliance with subsidiary parties that were not in a position to influence decisions superfluous. But as time went by, feedback from the field showed that the BJP candidates were encountering more difficulties than expected and that the Modi ‘magic’ was no longer working as well as it had in the past. The BJP’s entire campaign was based on the Prime Minister’s personality and his programme for the next five years was very general and largely summed up in the slogan ‘Modi ki guarantee’ (Modi’s guarantee). There was growing nervousness in the ranks of the outgoing majority as the Prime Minister, in his rallies and interviews, accused the Congress Party of borrowing its programme from the Pakistan Muslim League and of wanting to strip Hindu women of their gold jewellery and give it to Muslims. While Modi’s 2014 campaign was based on the theme of good governance and his 2019 campaign on the security of the country’s borders, in 2024 he gave the impression that he was attacking India’s 200 million Muslims, while at the same time defending himself.

With Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) widely tipped to win a third term in office, what analysis can be made of the results? What other lessons can be drawn from these elections?

The BJP lost the absolute majority it had held since 2014 and strengthened in 2019. It must have sensed the risk, because during the campaign it resurrected the NDA Alliance, which had been virtually non-existent since 2014. Shortly before, however, the BJP president had hinted that, in time, there would be only one party in India: the BJP. With his allies, including the unpredictable head of the Bihar government Nitish Kumar, who had been at the origin of the alliance of 28 opposition parties united within the INDIA coalition before joining the ruling coalition in a turnaround of which he is a master, Narendra Modi can still count on a majority in parliament. But on the one hand, his allies are likely to pay dearly for their support and limit Narendra Modi’s alleged desire to radically transform India into an officially Hindu state. On the other hand, this Pyrrhic victory is a personal slap in the face for the outgoing head of government, whose power was also personalised. For its part, the Congress party escaped the fading that threatened and its electoral strategy of alliance with regional parties paid off for it and its partners, enabling the opposition to return in force to the Lok Sabha, even if it remains in the minority.

What influence will these elections have on India’s international ambitions?

Probably none. On the one hand, the foreign policy that would have been pursued by a government led by the Congress party would hardly have been very different from that pursued by Narendra Modi. On the other hand, the fact that the opposition obtained a more than honourable score can be presented as a denial to those who claimed that the ‘largest democracy in the world’ was no more than an ‘electoral autocracy’. But above all, the geopolitical realities have not changed with the results published on 4 June: China is still India’s neighbour and its power is perceived as a threat by both India and Western countries. The latter will therefore continue to court New Delhi, while India will pursue its policy of ‘multi-alignment’, which consists of remaining friendly with Russia and Israel while being close to Arab countries and the West. So far, this policy of tightrope walking has been fairly successful for India, whose growth rate (8.2% for the 2023-2024 financial year) is attracting a great deal of commercial interest from its partners, particularly in the West.


Translated by Deepl.
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