Needing Help to Stay in Power, Modi Loses His Aura of Invincibility

Suddenly, the aura of invincibility around Narendra Modi has been shattered.

In an Indian election in which his party’s slogan had promised a landslide victory and Mr. Modi even repeatedly referred to himself as sent by God, the results announced on Tuesday were unexpectedly sobering.

Mr. Modi, 73, is set to take up a third consecutive term as prime minister, after the Election Commission gave final confirmation early Wednesday that the parties that make up his coalition had collectively passed the majority mark in Parliament. It is a feat that only one other Indian leader has accomplished, and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., won far more seats than any other party.

But instead of a runaway win, the B.J.P. lost dozens of seats. It now finds itself at the mercy of its coalition partners — including one politician notorious for how often he has switched sides — to stay in power, a sharp reversal a decade into Mr. Modi’s transformational tenure.

As the results came into view, the country’s stock markets plunged. Opposition parties, newly unified in what they had called an effort to save the country’s democracy, rejoiced. And India, while extending Mr. Modi’s firm hold on power, learned that there are limits to his political potency, even as he made the election, usually fought seat by seat, squarely about himself.

Mr. Modi took a more positive view in a statement on X declaring that his coalition had won a third term. “This is a historical feat in India’s history,” he said.

For Mr. Modi, a generous reading of the outcome could be that only with his personal push could his party overcome its unpopularity at the local level and scrape by. Or it could be that his carefully cultivated brand has now peaked, and that he can no longer outrun the anti-incumbency sentiment that eventually catches up with almost any politician.

How Mr. Modi will react is uncertain — whether he will harden his effort to turn away any challenge to his power, or be chastened by the voters’ verdict and his need to work with coalition partners that do not share his Hindu-nationalist ideology.

“Modi is not known as a consensual figure. However, he is very pragmatic,” said Arati Jerath, a political analyst based in New Delhi. “He will have to moderate his hard-line Hindu-nationalist approach to issues. Perhaps we can hope for more moderation from him.”

Few doubt, however, that Mr. Modi will try to deepen his already considerable imprint on the country over the next five years.

On his watch, India, the world’s most populous nation, has enjoyed newfound prominence on the global stage, overhauled its infrastructure for the needs of its 1.4 billion people, and been imbued with a new sense of ambition as it tries to shed the legacy of its long colonial past.

At the same time, Mr. Modi has worked to turn a vastly diverse country held together by a secular democratic system into an overtly Hindu-first state, marginalizing the country’s large Muslim minority.

His increasingly authoritarian turn — with a crackdown on dissent that has created a chilling environment of self-censorship — has pushed India’s vociferous democracy closer to a one-party state, his critics say. And the country’s economic growth, while rapid, has mostly enriched those at the top.

Mr. Modi rose from a humble background as the son of a tea seller, becoming India’s most powerful and popular leader in decades by building a cult of personality, spending big on infrastructure and welfare, and tilting India’s democratic institutions in his favor.

The ultimate goal was to cement his standing as one of the most consequential prime ministers in India’s nearly 75 years as a republic and make the B.J.P. the country’s only plausible national governing force.

But the results on Tuesday pointed to a sharp turnaround for India’s beleaguered main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which had been seen by many as irrevocably weakened after big losses in the previous two elections.

The once-dominant Congress, long positioned at India’s political center, struggled for years to find a direction and offer an ideological alternative to the B.J.P. But it and its coalition partners found traction in this election by attacking Mr. Modi’s government over issues like unemployment, social justice and the prime minister’s ties to India’s billionaires.

Last year, as Rahul Gandhi, the public face of the Congress party, sought to burnish his standing by leading long marches across India, the B.J.P. ensnared him in a court case that led to his expulsion from Parliament. He was later returned to his seat by India’s highest court, and was set to win re-election on Tuesday.

Speaking as early returns came in, Mr. Gandhi, 53, said the fight was not just against the B.J.P. It was also, he said, against all the government institutions that had stood with Mr. Modi in trying to hamstring the opposition through arrests and other punitive actions.

“This was about saving the Constitution,” he said, lifting a small copy that he had been carrying with him and displaying during speeches on the campaign trail.

He crisscrossed the country for more than 200 rallies over about two months and gave dozens of interviews, hoping to use his charismatic appeal to paper over any weaknesses in his party. In speeches, he often veered from his party’s message of a rising India to counter accusations that he privileged business and caste elites. He also abandoned his once-subtle dog whistles targeting India’s 200 million Muslims, instead demonizing them directly, by name.

As things stood by nightfall, Mr. Modi would need at least 33 seats from allies to cross the 272 minimum for forming a government.

Two regional parties in particular would be kingmakers: the Telugu Desam Party, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, with 16 seats, and the Janata Dal (United) party in the eastern state of Bihar, with 12.

Both parties are avowedly secular, raising hopes among Mr. Modi’s opponents that their influence could slow down his race to turn India’s democracy into a Hindu-first state.

Some of Mr. Modi’s biggest losses came in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh in the north, with about 240 million people. His party leads the state government and had won 62 of the state’s 80 seats in the national Parliament’s lower house in the previous election, in 2019.

As counting entered its last stretch in the evening on Tuesday, the B.J.P. was leading in only 33 seats there. In his own constituency, Varanasi, Mr. Modi’s victory margin was reduced from half a million last time to about 150,000.

The loss in Faizabad constituency, in particular, told the story of how some of the prime minister’s biggest offerings had struggled to connect with voters.

The constituency is home to the lavish Ram temple in Ayodhya, built on grounds disputed between Hindus and Muslims. Its construction was a cornerstone of the nearly century-old Hindu-nationalist movement that had swept Mr. Modi to power. He hoped that its grand inauguration just before the election campaign began would both unite his Hindu support base and bring new supporters into the fold.

Some B.J.P. workers said that the party’s flaunting of the temple may have made a large section of Hindus at the bottom of the rigid caste hierarchy uncomfortable. The opposition had painted Mr. Modi as pursuing an upper-caste agenda that denied underprivileged Hindus opportunities to reverse centuries of oppression.

“Because of overemphasis on the Ram temple issue, the opposition got united,” said Subhash Punia, 62, a farmer from the state of Rajasthan who supports Mr. Modi and was waiting outside the B.J.P. headquarters in Delhi on Tuesday.

To offset potential losses in his Hindi-speaking northern stronghold, Mr. Modi had set a lofty goal for this election: to gain a foothold in the country’s more prosperous south.

He broke some new ground in Kerala, a state dominated by the political left and long hostile to his ideology. But overall in the south, he struggled to improve on the 29 seats, out of 129, that his party had won in the previous election.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for the B.J.P. in southern India was that it once again appeared not to have won any of the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu, a state with its own strong cultural and linguistic identity.

Mr. Modi had campaigned aggressively there, even visiting one coastal town for two days of meditation as the voting neared its conclusion.

“Mr. Modi’s and the B.J.P.’s antics cannot win my Tamil heart,” said S. Ganesan, a waiter at a hotel in Kanniyakumari, the town Mr. Modi visited.

Mujib Mashal, Alex Travelli, Hari Kumar and Sameer Yasir reported from New Delhi, Suhasini Raj from Varanasi, India, and Pragati K.B. from Bengaluru, India.

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