India’s Modi faces ‘unprecedented’ alliance test after election results

Modi has only ever ruled with large majorities, centralised power and without coalition compulsions. Can he adapt? The answer could shape India’s next government, say analysts

New Delhi, India — For a decade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have insisted that they represent a “new India” – one free from the nepotism often associated with family-run parties that dominate the opposition, and the corruption that tainted previous governments.

On Wednesday, the world’s largest democracy woke up to a different “new India”, one where the BJP had lost the commanding majority it had led the country with for the past decade, triggering a political scramble to assemble the nation’s next government.

Leaders of both the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the opposition INDIA alliance rushed to New Delhi, as they separately huddled to plot the next steps in a political drama that no exit poll had predicted after India’s seven-phase election concluded on June 1.

Defying projections of a landslide win for the BJP and NDA after the final round of voting on June 1 in India’s mammoth election, the INDIA alliance managed to win 232 seats in the election to the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. The BJP still emerged as India’s largest party, with 240 seats, but that number falls well short of the 272 needed for a majority.

On Wednesday, the BJP’s biggest allies in the NDA, including the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and the Janata Dal (United) – also known as the JD(U) – from the state of Bihar, pledged support to the BJP and Modi. Modi was “unanimously elected as the leader of the NDA” at the meeting of the NDA, the BJP said in a statement on X. The NDA as a whole has won 293 seats, 21 more than the majority mark.

A few hours later, speaking on behalf of the INDIA alliance, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said that the opposition bloc “will continue to fight against the fascist rule of the BJP led by Modi”.

Yet one central question hovers over the political discussions over the formation of the next government, said analysts and political insiders: Can Prime Minister Modi rule a government dependent on other parties, something he has never done before?

“This is an unknown,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi. “Modi has only been known to work as a leader with absolutely centralised power.”

“The ‘Modi phenomenon’ is based on a particular form of governance. Him having to compromise with allies is not either a Modi we know, or a Modi he has sold,” Sircar added.

A new challenge

Speaking to party supporters at the BJP headquarters on Tuesday evening, Modi credited Nitish Kumar, the leader of the JD(U) for leading the ruling alliance to big wins in Bihar. Yet the two politicians have long navigated a love-hate relationship, with frequent breakups and patch-ups. The JD(U) has won 12 seats.

Like the JD(U), the TDP too has dallied with both the BJP and the opposition Congress at different times. Unlike the BJP, both the JD(U) and TDP also tout their secular credentials, count on the support of Muslim voters and keep a distance from the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian politics. The TDP has won 16 seats.

Meanwhile, analysts point out that the BJP has successfully pitched Modi as a strong, decisive leader, who doesn’t let politics come in the way of key policies. That has been possible, though, because Modi has never had to rule without a clear majority.

He first gained national prominence when he took over as chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2001, where he ruled for 13 years before he became prime minister. In Gujarat and nationally, Modi has always had a brute majority.

Until now.

With the election result, “Brand Modi” has suffered a setback, said Rasheed Kidwai, a political analyst. But the results have also made “the politics of alliance a compulsion for Modi,” he said, taking India back to the pre-2014 era when coalition governments were the norm.

“This will be difficult for Modi because allies come with certain expectations, including important positions,” said Kidwai, adding that Modi’s bargaining skills would now be tested under a coalition government.

Those expectations, he said, could include demands from allies for the post of speaker in the parliament. Though the speaker mostly has a ceremonial role, it becomes critical if members of parliament are looking to break a party. The speaker gets to decide on the legality of such efforts. The BJP has been accused by critics of splintering both allies – such as the Shiv Sena – and opponents – such as the Nationalist Congress Party. Both parties are major players in the state of Maharashtra.

Allies will also seek key cabinet positions, said analysts. “The game will be to keep allies happy and give up ministerial berths, however, ministers do not mean a lot in this government, as we have seen,” said the CPR’s Sircar.

Yet, Modi will need to accommodate enough of those demands if he is to keep a governing coalition in place, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer.

“There is no other option for Modi – if he wants to behave the way he has behaved for the last 10 years, he will have to vacate the office,” said Mukhopadhyay. “Modi will need to come up with a personality that is humble and open to working with others – a side of him we have never seen.”

Within the BJP too, Modi and Amit Shah, his confidant and India’s home minister, could face questions over the centralised hold over power, said Kidwai.

“The internal fissures will become triggers now – it is not the same India as before June 4,” said Kidwai. “This will change contemporary politics fundamentally.”

A coalition past

To be sure, the BJP has a long history of running coalition governments. In the 1990s, it was the Congress party, which had dominated Indian politics until then, that had little experience in working with other partners.

By contrast, the BJP successfully ran a coalition government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004.

“Vajpayee understood the limitations of his own party and was a smart politician,” said AS Dulat, who served as the chief of the research and analysis wing of India’s external intelligence agency, under Vajpayee. “He never stopped belonging to the RSS and yet he could accommodate everybody in the government. That is the greatness of him.” The RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the far-right ideological mentor of the BJP, under whose tutelage Vajpayee, Modi and many senior party leaders grew up.

Sircar agreed. “Modi and Vajpayee are completely different,” he said. “Modi has only known how to keep everyone else out of power, from Gujarat to the PM’s office in Delhi.”

Vajpayee also did not project a larger-than-life image of himself, noted Kidwai. “But Modi is a prisoner of his own image. Any accommodation of additional voices will be a challenging task,” he said.

In a defining image of Modi’s early political life, he stood next to Vajpayee, then-prime minister, visiting the relief camps in Gujarat, then headed by Modi, following anti-Muslim riots that killed more than a thousand people. Responding to a reporter, Vajpayee advised that Modi should ‘follow his rajdharma [the ruler’s duty],” explaining it as: “For somebody in a position of power, it means not discriminating among the higher and lower classes of society or people of any religion.”

A grinning Modi next to him interjected saying: “That’s what we are doing, sahib.”

More than two decades later, said analysts, Modi might need to draw on Vajpayee’s lessons in order to successfully lead a government for a third term.

“Today, he is a very diminished person,” Mukhopadhyay said of Modi. “Now that shine is gone, we will see what remains of a leader inside Modi.”

Source: Al Jazeera