Modi claims a third term but needs other parties to govern

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed a third term last night (Tuesday), as his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) snapped up 240 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house). And that result is much slimmer than everyone expected.

Electoral workers have spent six weeks schlepping from remote villages to sprawling metropolises and up to the Himalayas – all through a record-melting heatwave – to collect 642 million votes from India’s 970 million eligible voters. 

India then counted those 642 million votes in a single day (yesterday), thanks to a decentralised process that’s been tweaked over the decades.

The magic number to win a majority in the Lok Sabha is 272. And while there were 744 parties in the mix, there were really two key competing alliances:

National Democratic Alliance (NDA):Modi’s pro-Hindu BJP drives this alliance, and won 240 seats (down from 303 last time). Other smaller parties then brought the bloc’s total back to 292.

Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance:This group, with its chefs-kiss acronym (I.N.D.I.A.), is home to India’s opposition Congress Party, a ‘big tent’ movement once led by Mahatma Gandhi on the path to independence.

It’s now led by Rahul Gandhi, the son and grandson of former PMs (though no relation to Mahatma). He ran on a ‘save the constitution’ platform, arguing Modi was eroding India’s secular and democratic foundations. And he won 99 seats (double his last haul), while his 25 partners lifted the bloc’s total to 234.

So Modi’s coalition beat the opposition 292-234, and that’s that, right?

Almost. There’s some breathlessness right now being driven by three factors.

First, there were big surprises in some battleground states

  • Uttar Pradesh: Modi got crushed in his heartland and India’s most populous state (245 million people), losing around half his seats there
  • Maharashtra: He got crushed in the state with India’s top economy ($450B) and most populous city (Mumbai), again losing half his seats, and
  • West Bengal:He also got crushed in this crucial state of 100 million people, losing around a third of his seats there.

Second, Modi’s win was way below expectations set by polls, exit polls, and Modi himself, who tempted fate with the slogan: “this time, beyond 400” [seats].

And third, Modi’s two main coalition partners only just joined him, are secular, and have a history of switching sides. So they’ll drive a hard bargain, and could theoretically jump ship to join the opposition, which is reportedly offering very senior roles in return.

But reports are just breaking that they’ve now pledged their support for a third Modi term, which could start this weekend.


Let’s quickly explore three questions.

First, why did this happen? India’s famously raucous media will pore over this for months, but here’s our initial sense:

  • With inflation and inequality so high, he got hit by anti-incumbency
  • With expectations so high, he got hit by complacency
  • With his authoritarian streak running high, he got hit by democracy, and yet
  • His national popularity wasn’t high enough to ease local grievances.

Second, what does this mean for Modi?

He’s still one of the world’s most popular leaders, and likely still helming the world’s fastest-growing major economy into a record-tying third term. But he over-promised and under-delivered, so his aura of invincibility is now gone.

Third and finally, what does this mean for India? We can expect to see:

  • An emboldened opposition, media, civil society, and other more independent voices that’ve limped through Modi’s last term
  • That might mean a more consultative term ahead, tapping the brakes on Modi’s hard-line Hindu nationalist urges, but also…
  • That new dash of consultation might tap the brakes on India’s much-needed economic reforms. Though we hasten to add: while he had limited reform success even when flying solo, some predecessors (like PM Rao) have shown that coalitions can still make big changes.

So to finish? Maybe spare a thought for Pradeep Gupta, India’s well-known pollster, who wept on live national TV as his (and everyone else’s) forecasts proved wrong. Though that’s the fun of this delicate thing we call democracy.

Also worth noting:

  • Modi has never held a solo press conference as prime minister.
  • Various world leaders have now congratulated Modi, though the US is playing it safe and waiting until coalition talks conclude.
  • India’s stock market crashed 6% yesterday as it emerged Modi would need to govern in a coalition for the first time. Interestingly, parts of Adani, a conglomerate with close Modi ties, saw their shares surge 240% in the year to yesterday, when the group then crashed 18%.
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