By Yashraj Sharma

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost its national majority after suffering major losses in key states, marking a dramatic shift in a political landscape it has dominated for the past decade.

The BJP emerged, comfortably, as the country’s single-largest party in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. But as India’s election authorities counted 640 million votes within a day on Tuesday, after a six-week-long election, the BJP fell well short of its performances from 2014 and 2019.

Unlike both those elections, when the BJP won clear majorities on its own in a house of 543 seats, it ended up with 240 seats this time around. The halfway mark is 272 seats.

By contrast, the opposition INDIA alliance, led by the Congress party, won 223 seats, significantly higher than exit polls had predicted. Released on June 1 after the final phase of India’s election cycle, the exit polls had suggested that the BJP would outdo its 2019 tally of 303 seats.

Modi and his party are still likely to be able to form India’s next government – but will be dependent on a clutch of allies whose support they will need to cross the 272-seat mark. The BJP with its allies, in a coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), won 283 seats.

“India will likely have an NDA government, where the BJP does not have a majority on their own, and coalition politics will come into real play,” said Sandeep Shastri, the national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, a research programme at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

On Tuesday evening, Modi claimed, in his first comments after the results were declared, victory for his NDA coalition. “We will form the next government,” he said, speaking to thousands of supporters gathered at the BJP’s party headquarters in New Delhi.

Yet, analysts said that the electoral verdict raised questions about the BJP’s strategy. As India’s long-drawn-out election campaign played out, Modi, India’s charismatic and polarising prime minister, had increasingly turned to fearmongering over an alleged plot by the opposition to hand over the nation’s resources to Muslims, at the cost of its majority Hindus.

Meanwhile, the opposition had tried to corner Modi on his government’s economic track record. While the country is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, voters told pollsters ahead of the election that high inflation and unemployment were key concerns for them.

The BJP’s campaign slogan, “Abki baar, 400 paar” (This time, more than 400), set a target of 400 seats for its alliance, and 370 seats for the BJP itself.

That pitch carried a “tone of overconfidence”, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer, at a time when many in the Indian public were dealing with the lived realities of soaring prices, joblessness and income inequality so wide that it is now worse than during British colonial rule.

The result was the “sleepwalking of the BJP into a disaster”, said Asim Ali, a political analyst and columnist.

“Today, Modi has lost his face. He is not that ‘undefeated person’ and his invincible aura is not there any more,” said Ali.

Forming the next government

In some ways, the election verdict carries echoes of 2004, when another incumbent BJP government under then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was widely expected to win a landslide mandate by exit polls.

Instead, the Congress marginally edged the BJP in wins and formed the government with its allies.

But 2024 is not 2004. Despite the setbacks, the BJP is still, by far, the largest party in parliament, and in a position to form the next government along with its NDA allies. Congress, the largest opposition party, won 99 seats, less than half of the tally the BJP is expected to end up with when all votes are counted.

It is a point Modi emphasised in his public address on Tuesday evening.

“All our opponents, put together, did not win as many seats as the BJP alone,” he said, to loud chants of “Modi, Modi” from his supporters.

Still, two regional parties will now hold the key to the office of the prime minister of India: Janata Dal-United, led by Nitish Kumar in the state of Bihar, and the Telugu Desam Party, led by Chandrababu Naidu in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

The TDP won 16 seats and the JD(U) 12. Both the parties have also previously been in alliance with the Congress party.

While the BJP has made noticeable inroads in southern India – especially Kerala, where it won its first-ever Lok Sabha seat – its overall numbers were hit by major losses in the central Hindi-speaking states, which it had comfortably won in the last election.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state and a key determinant of who rules nationally, the Hindu-nationalist party lost in the Faizabad parliamentary district, home to the controversial Ram Temple, built on the ruins of the 16th-century Babri Masjid. Modi had consecrated the temple in January.

The consecration of the Ram Temple was at the forefront of the BJP’s campaign to mobilise Hindu voters. The party also lost the key seat of Amethi, where federal Minister Smriti Irani is staring at defeat. Irani had pulled off a spectacular win over Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi family, by 55,000 votes in 2019.

This year, Gandhi contested from neighbouring Rae Bareli constituency and won the seat by a margin more than twice the size by which Modi won his seat, Varanasi, also in Uttar Pradesh.

Overall, the BJP won just 33 seats out of Uttar Pradesh’s 80, a significant drop from the 62 it won in 2019 and its tally of 71 from 2014. The regional Samajwadi Party, a part of the opposition INDIA alliance, won 37 seats, while the Congress won six others.

The BJP also suffered losses in Maharashtra, India’s second-most politically critical state. With most votes counted, the INDIA alliance won 30 of the state’s 48 seats. Only Uttar Pradesh has more seats – 80. In 2019, the BJP alone had won 23 seats in Maharashtra, with its allies winning another 18.

Along with Maharashtra, three other states that have been epicentres of India’s agrarian crisis, with major farm protests, also saw losses for the BJP compared with 2019: Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. The BJP governs the states of Haryana and Rajasthan.

Congress celebrations

As soon as the initial trends trickled in on Tuesday morning, Congress supporters thronged the party headquarters in New Delhi. Supporters were seen sporting white T-shirts with photos of Rahul Gandhi on the back, as they waved the party flags, their eyes glued to giant screens broadcasting results live.

“Now, at least Indian people will have a voice to raise against the cruel BJP, who ruled us for the last 10 years. More seats mean we have a good say and a strong opposition,” said Suresh Verma, a Congress supporter.

The changed composition of India’s next parliament might also affect how laws are passed. Critics have accused the BJP government of ramming laws through parliament without discussions and debate.

That will not be easy any more, said Shastri. “It is going to be a much tougher ride in the parliament, very clearly, for the BJP.”

Beyond parliament, analysts said a weakened mandate could affect the functioning of India’s other democratic institutions, which critics have accused the BJP of appropriating for partisan politics.

“Under brute majority, institutions have collapsed in India under the BJP. The power system was very centralised at the top, and India needs these kinds of coalition-based governments for its democracy to survive,” Ali said.

What next for the BJP?

Once the immediate dust settles over these results, the BJP will introspect and the dominant duo of Modi and Amit Shah, India’s home minister who is widely seen as the prime minister’s deputy, will face tougher questions.

“There will be questions on imagining Modi as a leader of the alliance, where he would have to listen to non-BJP leaders much more,” said Shastri of the CSDS.

Ali, the political analyst, also noted that “the BJP failed to read the ground”, and a set of yes-men around Modi potentially blindsided his party. “It is like the king was only told the tales that he wanted to hear,” he said.

“It’s really important for the BJP that there is a feedback mechanism and decentralisation of the power.”

Over the past decade under a majority BJP government, India has slid on several democratic indices amid accusations of a crackdown on dissent, political opposition and media. Modi did not address any news conferences in the last decade as a prime minister.

With coalition partners to keep a check on the BJP, there “will be breathing space for the Indian civil society and the government’s critics”, said Mukhopadhyay, the biographer.

To many Indian Muslims, the outcome comes as a relief.

Watching the results from his shanty in northeastern New Delhi, Akbar Khan, a 33-year-old waste picker, said he was delighted. While all of Delhi’s seats are currently being led by the BJP in trends, Khan said that “the people came out on streets and have fought this election against the [incumbent] government”.

Khan, who also works with waste picker communities in states like Bihar and Jharkhand, said, “The economically backward castes and classes are hugely upset with Modi, and his divisive politics have not borne any fruits in their kitchen.”

As a Muslim, Khan said, he was upset by Modi’s Islamophobic remarks during the re-election campaign, where he equated the community with “infiltrators” and described them as people “who have more children”.

“Indians needed to vote against this hate from Modi and the BJP,” he said.