Why Modi Underperformed

Featured & Cover Why Modi Underperformed

India’s prime minister will balk at needing allies to stay in power, but coalition rule has proved to have benefits for large democracies.

From pundits to polls, there was a wide expectation this year that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi 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 Bharatiya Janata 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? I spoke with two experts on FP Live: Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Yamini Aiyar, the former president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. Subscribers can watch the full discussion on the video box atop this page or download the FP Live podcast. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.

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.

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