Modi 3.0: Navigating a New Political Landscape in India


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

A rock stone dealer in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, Paliwal lost his business after Modi announced an overnight lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Paliwal remained loyal to the BJP. In the recently concluded elections, however, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for the opposition. “I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the BJP either,” said Paliwal.

When Paliwal woke up from his nap, the country had changed. The BJP had lost its majority in a stunning election 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). Nevertheless, Paliwal said the drop in the party’s numbers represented a fundamental course correction for the country.

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

Election Aftermath: BJP’s Reduced Majority

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

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

A Fundamental Shift in Indian Politics

However, 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 paper over hate crimes, high unemployment, rising inflation, and soaring inequality using Hindu majoritarian politics. Now, these partners, serving as key pillars propping up the government, could act as a check on Modi, said analysts and rights activists.

“Indian voters have generally realized that Modi cannot operate as an autocrat like the last 10 years,” said Harsh Mander, a prominent rights activist who once served as a civil servant. “There is no evidence he was even consulting his cabinet before any major decision. And that is over now, hopefully.”

Public Sentiment: Voices of Change and Hope

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 comments by a member of Modi’s party, which had triggered a global backlash against New Delhi.

State authorities, governed by BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, brought bulldozers to demolish the building Fatima called home for years, following a policy that Amnesty International has described as deliberate “punishment to the Muslim community.”

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

“I hope that the BJP has been humbled by this mandate that will curb their arrogance,” she said. The BJP lost Fatima’s parliamentary constituency, Prayagraj, by over 50,000 votes. It lost all four constituencies surrounding the contentious 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 don’t know 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 least damaging option to defeat the bigger monster.”

Fatima is also dismayed by the lack of representation of the Muslim community within the opposition alliance, and in the Indian parliament, too. 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 surged in India in recent years. India averaged nearly two anti-Muslim hate speech events every day in 2023 and three in every four of those events – or 75% – took place in states governed by Modi’s BJP, according to a report by the India Hate Lab (IHL), a US-based research group.

Muslim Community Concerns: Representation and Rights

However, it isn’t just 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.

Global Perspective: Balancing Strategic Interests with Democratic Values

Meanwhile, Modi’s return to office will also sharpen a dilemma 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 counterbalance 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 dormant. And if the BJP has to govern in a coalition, it will have to scale back some of its expectations and ambitions.”

For now, Modi and the BJP are highlighting the rarity of their achievement 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 could 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 noted political consultant and image expert. “And the exit path may not be as smooth for Modi and Shah.”

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