India’s election shows the world’s largest democracy is still a democracy


DHARAMSHALA, INDIA- MAY 31: Women voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the seventh and final phase of voting in India’s general election in Dharamshala, India on June 1, 2024. (Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu via Getty Images)

If the basic test of whether a country remains a democracy is that the party in power can still suffer a setback at the ballot box, India passed on Tuesday. Results from the nation’s parliamentary elections — the largest in the world — indicate a shocking electoral setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

“Setback,” to be clear, is a relative term here. At the end of the staggered six-week election, Modi will become only the second Indian prime minister to win a third consecutive term. As of this writing, the BJP-led National Democracy Alliance (NDA) has won 289 seats in the 543-seat parliament and is leading in one more. A majority requires 272 seats.

The BJP itself has won 240 seats. That’s more than any Indian party won between 1984 and 2009, when Modi first came to power, and in most elections, it would have been an amazing result. But the expectations game is real, and Modi and his party lost it.

During the campaign, the NDA had a stated goal of winning 400 seats: a supermajority that would have allowed them to push through major legislative and constitutional changes. They didn’t come close. And after winning an absolute majority on its own in the last election, the BJP will likely now have to rely on its smaller coalition partners in the NDA to form a government. 

Exit polls over the weekend were also wildly wrong, with most incorrectly projecting around a 350-seat victory for Modi. (One of the more bizarre media moments on Tuesday was a prominent pollster breaking down in tears on Indian TV over his erroneous forecast and being comforted by his fellow panelists on camera. Not something you’re likely to see from Frank Luntz.)

The opposition Congress Party, which very recently looked headed for political oblivion under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the much-mocked fourth-generation scion of India’s most prominent political dynasty, appears likely to double its tally from the last election.

It’s far too soon to say it’s the end or even the beginning of the end for Modi and the BJP, but they’re facing something they haven’t in quite some time: meaningful opposition and uncertainty. And the world’s biggest electorate showed it’s still capable of surprise and independence.  

How Modi messed up

So what went wrong for Modi? In a country of 1.4 billion people, there could easily be that many reasons, and it’s still too early to make sweeping statements. But the growing consensus seems to be that India’s economy and pocketbook issues took precedence for many voters over the BJP’s avowedly religious and ideological project. 

While India has seen rapid GDP growth and infrastructure investment during the Modi years, unemployment has remained stubbornly high and, in many parts of the country, wage growth has been static.   

The ruling party’s most significant losses came in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a longtime BJP bastion. The most symbolically significant seat lost may be in Ayodhya, where earlier this year Modi presided over the opening of the Ram Mandir, a massive and controversial new Hindu temple built on the site of a historic mosque torn down by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992. 

Writing in Vox earlier this year, Zack Beauchamp described the temple as “a monument to an exclusive vision of Hinduism built on the ruins of one of the world’s most remarkable secular democracies.” For the BJP to lose in Ayodhya was all but unthinkable.    

But it seems not everyone was buying Modi’s ideological vision. In a prescient piece published in the Washington Post last week, the Indian journalist Barkha Dutt wrote that her interviews with voters throughout the country suggested that religious rhetoric and projects like Ram Mandir weren’t that salient as election issues. Even BJP supporters tended to focus on economic growth and Modi’s personal qualities rather than sectarian concerns.  

“When I asked what they would like to see him change, invariably I heard two answers — a greater focus on jobs and a toning down of the religious rhetoric,” Dutt wrote. One Uttar Pradesh farmer told her, “Politics based on religion is worthless … What we want is 24/7 electricity, enough water for irrigation and opportunities for our children.”

Instead, Modi seemed to dial up the Hindu nationalist rhetoric in the closing weeks of the campaign, accusing his rivals of planning to redistribute Hindu wealth to Muslims. It seems not to have worked. 

India’s democratic resilience

Domestic and international critics have been ringing alarm bells about the state of the world’s largest democracy’s political institutions for years, as Modi has presided over discriminatory policies targeting the country’s religious minorities, as well as the harassment of journalists, NGOs, and opposition politicians, not just in India but abroad. India had been downgraded to an “electoral autocracy” on the widely cited V-Dem index and is now classified as only “partly free” by the US NGO Freedom House. 

These autocratic tendencies were on full display in the lead-up to the election, with opponents accusing BJP activists and the police of harassing opposition candidates into withdrawing

It would be a stretch to say that Indian voters have rejected Modi’s approach. He’s still arguably the most popular leader of a large democracy in the world. But the election results at least suggest that he’s not immune from the forces of political gravity — inflation, slow growth, polarization, anti-establishment sentiment — that have dragged down leaders elsewhere

Modi will continue to be the dominant force in Indian politics (and a significant force in global politics) for years to come, but his rise looks less inevitable and invincible than it did just a few days ago, and the world’s largest democracy’s politics look just a bit more democratic.

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