India’s Surprise Election Result: A Loss for Modi but a Win for Democracy?

Rohinton Medhora

Rohinton Medhora explains the surprising outcome of India’s recent election and analyses factors that influenced it, the broader implications for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic and foreign policy, and the potential for the India-Canada relationship to improve following the alleged involvement of the Indian government in the murder of a Canadian citizen.

What factors contributed to the surprising outcome of India’s recent election?

The polls got it wrong. There’s an active debate regarding why both the long-term polls and the exit polls were wrong, but the bottom line is, they had not accurately read the public mood. The public mood was sour in the heartland of India, where the polls perhaps didn’t reach as effectively and as accurately.

The question then becomes why the public mood was the way it was. There is a lot of gloating in the press that the King has fallen, and hubris doesn’t pay. Underlying that would be the sense that the image that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP had cultivated of a strong, determined, and effective government, wasn’t borne out.

There are two specific instances that I outline. One is that the economy—while performing well overall, as it is growing by six or seven percent and will continue to grow—is not performing equally well for everyone. Inflation is high, especially in foodstuffs, and the growth and boom that India has seen has been highly skewed towards the very rich. As a result, the masses who actually vote in democracies did not see the economic boom that everyone else and the government had been fooled into believing existed.

Second is that some of the posturing and branding that the government did, particularly around a Hindu-first philosophy accompanied by the unveiling of a very controversial temple in January as the lead-in to the campaign, which didn’t go over well, even with Hindus. There is a socio-cultural reason here, which is that posturing was seen as coming at the expense of economic progress for the average Indian. Given the strict hierarchy in Hinduism, this was seen as perhaps favoring the upper castes and not so much the middle and lower castes. So, the strong branding backfired in this case when it was supposed to lead him to a victory.

How could the loss of the BJP’s parliamentary majority affect political dynamics in India? What challenges might that pose for Prime Minister Modi?

You need 272 seats in a parliament of 543 to have an absolute majority. Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party won 240. He is relying on two small, relatively secular regional parties to bring him to a majority of 293 seats. The bottom line is if the coalition holds, he still has a healthy majority of 293 seats in the parliament where you need 272. Both partners, who have between them 16 and 12 seats respectively, would have to leave the government for there to be a serious governance crisis. I think it’s safe to say that if the coalition talks and the sharing of ministries works, then this is still quite a stable majority.

That said, it is a chastened majority. The government will always have to watch what it can do, unlike in the previous government, where it had an absolute majority. This could work in the opposite direction too, which is that being in a minority situation, the government may want to make points by being even more assertive in some areas. However, I bet on the former, that this is a chastened majority that will have less imagery and there will be more of an emphasis on keeping the coalition together and delivering results.

What can we anticipate in terms of stability and governance more generally in India following the formation of this new government?

There are two parties, the Telugu Desam (TD) and the Janata Dal (JD), which have 16 and 12 seats respectively. It would require both parties being unhappy and leaving for the BJP to lose its majority. Therefore, a lot will depend on the give-and-take that happens in the formation of the cabinet.

That will take several days, and we won’t know until next week which ministries were allocated to whom and, more importantly, what kinds of economic and financial blandishments were offered. In the case of TD, for example, they would like their home state to have a special status in the Indian Federation. If that were granted, it is difficult to see why the TD would want to leave the coalition. It is similar with JD: if they get the ministries that they seek, and some of the economic spoils that go with the ministries, I see this as a stable coalition. However, the minority parties will exert an influence on the BJP and keep it on the straight and narrow.

How might the outcome of this election impact India’s foreign policy priorities and engagements, particularly with its relations with major global powers and regional neighbours?

There are two schools of thought on this.

One is that there is a continuity in Indian foreign policy and interests that transcends political changes. That will be the case here, as some people argue there has been continuity in the transition from the old Congress government to the current Modi regime.

The second school is a bit more nuanced. From independence in 1947 through to the 1990s, Indian foreign policy, was called “Non-Aligned”, along with Egypt and Yugoslavia. This was a way to keep large developing countries away from the Cold War. In practice, it meant that they were not in the U.S. orbit and more often in the Soviet orbit, and that rankled the West. In the 1990s, that changed as India opened and liberalized, therefore becoming closer to the U.S. and Western Europe.

Today, the main priority of Indian foreign policy is to triangulate between the U.S. and China. The BJP was criticized by the Congress Party for having wrecked relations with China. It was criticized by the left for having warmer relations with Israel and the U.S. than India has historically had. There was also this sense that India’s soft power was being degraded by domestic repression and the strong-arm tactics that the Modi government became known for in suppressing dissent. All parties ignored Russia, so Russia is not the player in Indian foreign policy that the Soviet Union used to be.

The question now is: what will Modi do differently? I suspect he will continue to court the U.S. If this government is smart, they will lighten up on some of the things that were giving them a black eye, in terms of soft power. This makes them more palatable even to the U.S. left, which was critical of relations with Modi. They will continue to try and improve relations with China, but that is a two-way street. Furthermore, India will continue to position itself in what I call the modern Non-Aligned Movement space, otherwise called strategic autonomy in India. India wants to successfully say, ‘don’t ask us to take sides on Russia and Ukraine. Don’t ask us to take sides on Israel, Gaza, and Palestine. Don’t ask us to take sides in a host of issues in which the West assumes that developing countries should be on their side.’ I think India will continue to carve a role for itself as an emerging power in a way that makes it distinct.

Can we discuss the impact of recent allegations of Indian involvement in international security incidents in Canada and the United States? What has the impact of this been on India’s reputation, and can you assess the implications for its relations with these countries?

The impact on India’s relations and India’s image overseas, following these episodes—and others in the U.K. and elsewhere—has not been good. India sees these episodes as either “cooked up” or a manifestation of what great powers do anyway. The rest of the world has seen this as a stain on the traditional Gandhian democracy that—that’s the caricature. In the Canadian and U.S. cases, this is now in the judicial realm. These are now police cases where arrests have been made, and a lot will depend on what kind of evidence is allowed to come out or is introduced in these trials. In some senses, it is almost out of the hands of politics.

The chastening of this government to which we were alluding earlier might mean that India plays a lighter hand. That was being talked about even before the elections, which is to say that this might all be attributed to rogue elements in the Indian Secret Services. It might also be that the evidence isn’t strong enough, because some of the important evidence cannot be made public or is not public.

All of that points to a situation in which these cases will resolve themselves somehow – I could not quite tell you how. The Indian government would like to see the last of them. I do not think these election results make much of a difference. I think it is going to be the judicial processes and things that Modi would have wanted to do to resolve these issues anyway.

One last point: India does not see the Canadian and U.S. cases as the same and is likely not to treat them that way. It needs the U.S. much more than it needs Canada. I would not be surprised if there is more activity to resolve the U.S. situation than there is to resolve the Canadian one. To India, it is easy to push Canada around. I am afraid whether we like it or not, that is the geopolitical reality.

What advice might you have for policymakers focused on the India file, particularly in terms of navigating our relationship with India as a middle power?

It strikes me that relations are particularly bad between the Modi government and the Liberal government. I get the impression that the conservatives in Canada have positioned themselves as being more pro-India and even more pro-Modi. Some of this might even depend on how the Canadian elections next year play out. If the Conservatives come to power, it might be that a lot of the current toxicity in the relationship is put behind, and the two countries can find a way to work together. If the Liberals win, then there may be more of the same.

These things are cyclical, and it takes time, but relations do come out of deep freeze. How and why, we cannot always predict. It is possible to see years down the road, even under a Liberal government, that Canada-India relations may somehow become more pragmatic and warm  At this stage, it is a tough call. I am not seeing many bright lights in the immediate future. We just have to hope that nothing is overdone.

How do the election results in India shape global perceptions of India’s democratic process and its role as the world’s largest democracy? Do you think it sends a message to other emerging democracies or about the strength of democracy generally?

The simple answer is yes, there is a message here for other elections. There is a message here in terms of a global political tide. The Indian elections are correctly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” They are a feat to be observed. Over six weeks, 600 million people in a country that remains poor and often illiterate asserted their vote in a mostly clean manner. That has to be admired because that is what we saw. The election results are being challenged here and there, but not in any major way. They were mostly nonviolent.

So, despite some people’s misgivings about the Modi government, they reassert that the Indian democracy is vibrant. The loss of 60 seats, including some crucial ones, for a government that was supposed to run through another majority shows that elections matter. The kinds of rhetoric and positions that the BJP, and Modi in particular, was espousing did not go over well. Yes, they still have a majority, but people have spoken, and democracies have a self-correcting mechanism that we have to admire. We have to admire it in a country as large, important, and symbolic as India. I do think we should take a moment to celebrate that side of Indian democracy and the results we just saw.

Whatever the results might have been, India will continue to rise as a global economic and political power. Its trajectory as a counterweight to China in the West will continue to drive Western relations with India. That dynamic has not gone away. There is a continuity here of India’s trajectory that would have been the same regardless of the results.

India is projected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to exhibit the highest growth rate of any country in the coming decades. Its demographic dividend, advances in technology, and the use of technology to fight poverty continue to be beacons for other developing countries. That remains the India that we hope to see. Politics will continue to be what they are, but there is a trajectory here that is almost independent of elections.

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