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Coalition Culture Is Back

Why Modi Underperformed

Ravi Agrawal

[From pundits to polls, there was a wide expectation this year that Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi would not just win a rare third consecutive term but would secure an even bigger parliamentary majority than he had before. As it emerged on Tuesday, India’s voters had other ideas. Modi’s BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) won the most seats—more than the entire opposition alliance combined—but will need the help of coalition allies to form a government. Modi has never needed to share power before and it’s anyone’s guess as to how he will adapt to the vulnerabilities of coalition politics.
What will the surprising election results mean for politics in India and for India’s place in the world? Ravi Agrawal, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy spoke with two experts Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Yamini Aiyar, the former president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. Excerpts:]

Ravi Agrawal: There was a wide expectation that Modi would return to power in a landslide. He didn’t. What went wrong?

Milan Vaishnav: If we rewind the clock to January and February of this year, before voting began, every pre-election survey pointed in one direction. And that was an overwhelming majority for the BJP, plus seats for the BJP’s allies known as the NDA. Exit polls reconfirmed that as recently as June 1. But that’s not what we saw. We saw a BJP that fell short of a governing majority. It will only be in power thanks to the help and assistance of its coalition partners.

The overarching message or takeaway for me was that it really wasn’t clear what this election was about. It’s such an obvious question to ask, but I have no answer for it. And this really hurt the BJP. There was no defining economic, national security, emotive issue. And what ended up happening, in broad strokes, was more of a classic state-by-state contest where local factors, incumbency, caste equations, party dynamics, alliances mattered much more. The BJP is on much weaker ground there. They have been the incumbent for 10 years. They have a motley group of opposition parties which have banded together with the explicit purpose of keeping the BJP out of power. There was some upset within the BJP’s ranks. They replaced over 100 of their sitting MPs, bringing in defectors and turncoats from other parties. This is important because the BJP is a rank-and-file, cadre-based party, so they don’t necessarily take very kindly to people coming from the outside. And so they really struggled to do something that we think of as part of the BJP’s strength, which is crafting a narrative.

But it was really the opposition, on the campaign trail, which was very disciplined in its messaging, hitting the government hard on the state of the economy, inequality, social injustice. And unlike opposition campaigns of the past, they stayed on message. They were nimble and they were very clever. It was the first time in a while when you saw opposition social media ads and you laughed out loud because of how cutting they were.

RA: Yamini, there’s been a lot of commentary about how democracy has been challenged in India. Do the results show that democracy is, in fact, alive and well in India?

Yamini Aiyar: Every poll and, frankly, everybody from elites and opinion-makers to opposition parties and people out of the ivory towers had the same sense that Modi is going to come back. It was, in fact, on the back of that confidence that they coined the phrase “Char SauPaar,” meaning this time we will cross more than 400 [seats in parliament]. Five hundred and forty-three is the total number of seats, so if you hit 400, you’ve achieved hegemonic dominance.

At the start of the campaign, a set of actions was taken by the government that gave a sense that dominance was now full and complete. In January, there was the consecration of the Ram Temple, a long-standing contestation around India’s secularism and Hindu identity, in which it looked like the Hindu national narrative had won. The prime minister was a sole priest, publicly and visibly participating as the key actor in the consecration ceremony. All over the city, people celebrated this huge achievement of what had really been the heart and soul of the struggle of the Hindu nationalist movement through the ’80s and ’90s, which was when they rose.

The slide into authoritarianism had begun a long time ago, but it accelerated in some ways in those two months before the elections, hitting a crescendo when one of the leading opposition voices was jailed days before the campaign officially began. The Congress Party, the leading opposition party, comes out saying, “Our accounts have been frozen.” And in the backdrop of this, several other politicians have investigative agencies chase after them, civil society is completely curbed. There was a sense that there is no space for active political contestation, that dominance has been achieved, that this election was going to be won before it even began. And then the campaign started.

As the campaign unfolded, the BJP had one national agenda. So I disagree with you, Milan. There was a national agenda. It’s just that agenda wasn’t as exciting to all voters. The national agenda was Modi, Modi’s charisma, Modi’s personality, Modi’s omnipresence, his mesmerising charm, the spell that he had cast on the Indian voter over these last 10 years. And it was Modi’s guarantee, which is the title of the BJP manifesto. Modi was the sole and only campaigner.

The opposition, which was struggling to figure out how to create cohesion, was listening and engaging in some remarkable ways. The first and most important thing was the economy, as Milan mentioned. People wanted to hear from the BJP what they had to say about the two things that were hurting them the most, particularly in north India, which was unemployment and, linked to that, inflation. Early in the campaign, some BJP leaders, perhaps in their hubris, let out that there was some thinking about changing the constitution. And that is why they needed total dominance. The Indian electorate was already beginning to wonder about this total dominance. This idea of “crossing 400” had a sense of arrogance that was beginning to become uncomfortable. And you saw this in the growing emergence of social media influencers who were really hitting out at the authoritarian tendencies of the government. Their numbers started rising, a sign that voters were looking for something else. This, combined with this challenge to the constitution, became a live issue which the opposition was able to harness into a cohesive narrative and link it very interestingly to caste politics. Suddenly, caste was back in contention because the constitution was written by B R Ambedkar, who is a very important figure for lower-caste politics in India. But also the constitution contains hard-fought rights linked to reservations [affirmative action]. So the opposition built this into a narrative about social justice. The voter, too, was beginning to express an exhaustion with the constant polarisation and the constant authoritarianism. These were the messages that eroded support for Modi, and that’s where the election landed.

RA: How do you think he and his party will approach power sharing? And what do you think that means for governance?

MV: We are truly in uncharted territory. NarendraModi was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, the state’s chief executive, for 13 years. He always had an overpowering single-party majority. When he transitioned to national life as prime minister in 2014, for the past 10 years, he has always had a dominant majority. Yes, he had coalition allies. They were extraneous. They were superfluous. He didn’t need them. He campaigned with them. He let them come along for the ride. He didn’t count on them to prove his majority on the floor of parliament.

We’re in a completely different scenario here. We have two political parties: the Telugu Desam Party, which is the ruling party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal (United), part of the ruling alliance with the BJP in the state of Bihar. Together, they have about 30 seats. They could make or break this government. So they are going to extract their pound of flesh. This is not something that NarendraModi has a lot of practice doing. Those of us who have watched him over the past two decades are really not sure how he’s going to manage. His style of governance is very much top-down: centralising power, working with the bureaucracy, cutting out members of the cabinet. But you’re now going to have your key coalition partners who are going to have important positions in the Council of Ministers.

All of a sudden, you may even have a party which has two seats in the national parliament of 543, which is going to say, “No, no, no. If I leave, this is going to hurt you.” We don’t know how he’s going to manage because he’s never had to do this before.

RA: Yamini, from the 1980s onward, most Indian administrations were coalition governments, and one can say that Modi between 2014 and 2024 was a sort of exception to that norm. How do coalition governments tend to do in India?

YA: Coalitions work in India because of the peculiar nature of India’s politics. As democracy deepened, coalition politics, state politics, regional politics became very important ways in which ethnic anxieties, linguistic anxieties, caste-related pressures for access to state power found accommodation. So it is really about the fundamental principle of democracy, which is a politics that becomes accommodative for a large country like India, with multiple fissures and deep forms of inequality. It sometimes can slow decision-making down.

I think that cooperation, dialogue, deliberation—which are at the heart of coalition politics—are good for India. It may mean that decisions cannot be taken immediately, but the decisions that are taken are more long-standing. So I don’t think there’s much for us to worry about. We have experienced dominance, we know its limits, and we know that it’s really important to have checks and balances. The Indian voters’ message, in my reading of this election, is a nuanced message. It’s a message that says, “Modi, we’re not completely giving up on you, but we don’t like how you’ve done stuff. So you’re a little bit on notice.” And to the opposition, “We’re kind of interested but not fully convinced, so you’re on notice, too.” It’s on both of them. So if the opposition, which is now a little stronger, uses parliament productively for serious debate, I think we will actually end up with far more useful economic reform. Our growth trajectory is at a place where much of what needs to be done requires cooperation with states, and so coalitions will help move us in that direction.

MV: The empirical evidence is very clear. Economic growth has been better and higher under coalition governments than single-party majorities. It is true that it is harder to enact new reforms, but it is also harder to undo old reforms. When you have a country that’s slowly moving in a more pro-market direction, I think it’s important. But the second part of what Yamini said is equally important, which is there’s also an institutional corollary here. When you have a more fragmented, multipolar political system, independent institutions like the Election Commission, like the Supreme Court, like the Reserve Bank of India, like various anti-corruption accountability institutions, they have space and don’t feel suffocated. They don’t feel the need to pay excessive deference to the ruling party. Some of these institutions, which have really not been very effective for the past 10 years, might start reclaiming some of that space back.

YA: But this is uncharted territory for Modi and his comrade in arms, Amit Shah. They have never been in a situation where they are not in total control. It really depends on how they read the mandate. Do they read the mandate like I do, as a nuanced mandate where the electorate is saying, “Some things you did, we don’t like, so stop.”? Or do they read it to say, as some of their Twitter trolls have been doing, which is, “The Hindus have let us down. Those cross-caste coalitions have let us down. Let’s go back to our core agenda.”? Will they then act as wounded animals and push back even further? They still have powers. It’s really about whether they shift their governance strategy or whether they double down, because now they are in a slightly weaker position and have to reestablish their dominance.

[Source: Foreign Policy]

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Vol 56, No. 52, Jun 23 - 29, 2024