What Defeat Means for Narendra Modi?


On Nov. 8, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffered a major defeat in the legislative assembly elections in the eastern state of Bihar. It amounted to a personal humiliation of Modi, since he had been the centerpiece of the BJP’s campaign. The party ran a campaign focused on national politics, even refusing to name any candidates for state chief minister before the elections. The BJP’s opposition, a grand alliance of mostly regional parties, including the ruling incumbent party, focused on issues of local development and social welfare. Needless to say, the opposition’s message resonated far better with voters, as they won 178 seats out of 243, compared to 58 seats for the BJP and its allies. But in the last few weeks leading up to the election, the campaign took an ugly turn. Sensing the possibility of defeat, the BJP increasingly resorted to communalism, portraying its opponents as an existential threat to Hindu values and attempting to drive a wedge among voters based on caste. Meanwhile, across the country, Hindu mobs carried out several violent attacks on Muslims and secular activists for perceived slights against Hindu beliefs. Perhaps the most notable attack was the mob lynching of a Muslim man who was falsely accused of storing and consuming beef in his house, an act considered taboo by many Hindus. Modi and the BJP alternated between maintaining silence and implied victim-blaming.

It would have taken very little effort for the BJP’s national leaders to distance themselves from such ugliness. A simple condemnation of violence or statements in support of minority rights would have gone a long way in protecting the image of the party’s top leaders. Instead, BJP leaders portrayed themselves as the victims of some sort of left-wing conspiracy to harm the party or even damage India’s reputation abroad. They deflected blame even in the most clear-cut circumstances, and they have been generally dismissive of an increasingly evident rise in intolerance. When they have responded to specific incidents, they have done so in meaningless platitudes, using words like “regrettable” and “unfortunate.” In some cases, they have even strongly implied that the victims were deserving of their fates.

One can thus only conclude that Modi and other BJP leaders are reluctant to speak out against such communalism either because they are fearful of losing their religious conservative base or because they fundamentally agree with it. Either reason is troublesome, though the latter is considerably more frightening. The BJP rode a wave of massive discontent to power in 2014, running on a platform consisting almost exclusively of economic issues. Voters were fed up with dysfunctional government and a sharp downturn in economic growth. Many voters remained skeptical that the BJP could shed its far-right Hindu nationalist elements, but Modi’s promises of decisive economic reforms and his conspicuous lack of campaigning on social issues convinced many others that his party had turned a new leaf. Now, it seems that skepticism was well-placed, and voters are reminding the BJP of the narrowness of its mandate.

In both of the BJP’s electoral tests since winning a majority in the national parliament in 2014, the party has failed spectacularly. In February of this year, the BJP won just 3 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly elections, handing all 67 remaining seats to the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party. Now, the lopsided defeat in Bihar has dealt a second consecutive major blow to the BJP’s momentum. The BJP does not have a majority in the upper house of India’s parliament, and the state-level losses have hurt their designs on gaining influence in that house – most upper house members are elected by state legislatures. This does not mean that all is lost for Modi’s agenda, however. His party still holds a large majority of seats in the more powerful lower house of parliament until 2019, after all, and upcoming state elections may still go in the BJP’s favor. And the Indian National Congress, the overwhelmingly dominant party in Indian politics for much of the country’s history and now the BJP’s main opposition, still remains in shambles.

But the main takeaway for the BJP should be a healthy dose of humility. The party can no longer coast on Modi’s charisma or presumed popularity, and it certainly cannot afford to indulge in the ugly communalist whims of its right wing – it must compete on the issues that brought it to power in the first place. Most Indians, especially members of the growing middle class, very much want Modi to succeed in delivering the economic growth he promised. The BJP is in power because voters want economic progress, not because they agree with the party’s cultural philosophy. Modi and the BJP would do well to keep that in mind and get back to work on their economic agenda.

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