India just showed the world how to fight an authoritarian on the rise

In World

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, by some measures, the most popular leader in the world. Prior to the 2024 election, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held an outright majority in the Lok Sabha (India’s Parliament) — one that was widely projected to grow after the vote count. The party regularly boasted that it would win 400 Lok Sabha seats, easily enough to amend India’s constitution along the party’s preferred Hindu nationalist lines.

But when the results were announced on Tuesday, the BJP held just 240 seats. They not only underperformed expectations, they actually lost their parliamentary majority. While Modi will remain prime minister, he will do so at the helm of a coalition government — meaning that he will depend on other parties to stay in office, making it harder to continue his ongoing assault on Indian democracy.

So what happened? Why did Indian voters deal a devastating blow to a prime minister who, by all measures, they mostly seem to like?

India is a massive country — the most populous in the world — and one of the most diverse, making its internal politics exceedingly complicated. A definitive assessment of the election would require granular data on voter breakdown across caste, class, linguistic, religious, age, and gender divides. At present, those numbers don’t exist in sufficient detail. 

But after looking at the information that is available and speaking with several leading experts on Indian politics, there are at least three conclusions that I’m comfortable drawing.

First, voters punished Modi for putting his Hindu nationalist agenda ahead of fixing India’s unequal economy. Second, Indian voters had some real concerns about the decline of liberal democracy under BJP rule. Third, the opposition parties waged a smart campaign that took advantage of Modi’s vulnerabilities on the economy and democracy.

Understanding these factors isn’t just important for Indians. The country’s election has some universal lessons for how to beat a would-be authoritarian — ones that Americans especially might want to heed heading into its election in November.

A new (and unequal) economy

Modi’s biggest and most surprising losses came in India’s two most populous states: Uttar Pradesh in the north and Maharashtra in the west. Both states had previously been BJP strongholds — places where the party’s core tactic of pitting the Hindu majority against the Muslim minority had seemingly cemented Hindu support for Modi and his allies.

One prominent Indian analyst, Yogendra Yadav, saw the cracks in advance. Swimming against the tide of Indian media, he correctly predicted that the BJP would fall short of a governing majority.

Traveling through the country, but especially rural Uttar Pradesh, he prophesied “the return of normal politics”: that Indian voters were no longer held spellbound by Modi’s charismatic nationalist appeals and were instead starting to worry about the way politics was affecting their lives.

Yadav’s conclusions derived in no small part from hearing voters’ concerns about the economy. The issue wasn’t GDP growth — India’s is the fastest-growing economy in the world — but rather the distribution of growth’s fruits. While some of Modi’s top allies struck it rich, many ordinary Indians suffered. Nearly half of all Indians between 20 and 24 are unemployed; Indian farmers have repeatedly protested Modi policies that they felt hurt their livelihoods.

“Everyone was talking about price rise, unemployment, the state of public services, the plight of farmers, [and] the struggles of labor,” Yadav wrote.

An Indian man carrying a basket on his head and a sheaf of grass in one hand stands in a crowd and speaks into a news microphone.

DPCC activists protest near Parliament House against the Farmer Bill brought by BJP’s Modi government on September 21, 2020, in New Delhi, India.
Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

According to Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, this sort of discontent was quite visible on the ground. In the months prior to the election, she conducted research in three regions of India on public perceptions of Modi’s economic policy. She found that voters blamed Modi for three major economic policy mistakes: a failed attempt to replace cash payments with electronic transfers, a disastrous Covid-19 response, and a tax on goods and services that favored the wealthy over small businesses.

“These three economic calamities compounded into general dissatisfaction with economic mismanagement,” she tells me.

In general, she believes there’s a sense among Indian voters that the BJP saw them as “recipients of schemes” rather than “rights-bearing citizens,” meaning that Modi’s government put various policy experiments ahead of basic capabilities to provide good jobs, access to health care, and high-quality education.

Interestingly, many of these policies are not new. We’re several years out of the pandemic, and the demonetization experiment took place all the way back in 2016. Indian voters know that Modi has been in power for 10 years and seem to have turned against the incumbent based on a general sense that he’s botched certain elements of his governing agenda.

“We know for sure that Modi’s strongman image and brassy self-confidence were not as popular with voters as the BJP assumed,” says Sadanand Dhume, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies India. 

The lesson here isn’t that the pocketbook concerns trump identity-based appeals everywhere; recent evidence in wealthier democracies suggests the opposite is true. Rather, it’s that even entrenched reputations of populist leaders are not unshakeable. When they make errors, even some time ago, it’s possible to get voters to remember these mistakes and prioritize them over whatever culture war the populist is peddling at the moment.

The Indian constitution is a liberal document: It guarantees equality of all citizens and enshrines measures designed to enshrine said equality into law. The signature goal of Modi’s time in power has been to rip this liberal edifice down and replace it with a Hindu nationalist model that pushes non-Hindus to the social margins. In pursuit of this agenda, the BJP has concentrated power in Modi’s hands and undermined key pillars of Indian democracy (like a free press and independent judiciary).

Prior to the election, there was a sense that Indian voters either didn’t much care about the assault on liberal democracy or mostly agreed with it. But the BJP’s surprising underperformance suggests otherwise.

The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, published an essential post-election data analysis breaking down what we know about the results. One of the more striking findings is that the opposition parties surged in parliamentary seats reserved for members of “scheduled castes” — the legal term for Dalits, the lowest caste grouping in the Hindu hierarchy.

Caste has long been an essential cleavage in Indian politics, with Dalits typically favoring the left-wing Congress party over the BJP (long seen as an upper-caste party). Under Modi, the BJP had seemingly tamped down on the salience of class by elevating all Hindus — including Dalits — over Muslims. Yet now it’s looking like Dalits were flocking back to Congress and its allies. Why?

According to experts, Dalit voters feared the consequences of a BJP landslide. If Modi’s party achieved its 400-seat target, they’d have more than enough votes to amend India’s constitution. Since the constitution contains several protections designed to promote Dalit equality — including a first-in-the-world affirmative action system — that seemed like a serious threat to the community. It seems, at least based on preliminary data, that they voted accordingly.

Dalit women in Ayela village on the outskirts of Agra on May 6, 2024.

Dalit women in Ayela village on the outskirts of Agra on May 6, 2024.
Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

The Dalit vote is but one example of the ways in which Modi’s brazen willingness to assail Indian institutions likely alienated voters.

Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest and most electorally important state, was the site of a major BJP anti-Muslim campaign. It unofficially kicked off its campaign in the UP city of Ayodhya earlier this year, during a ceremony celebrating one of Modi’s crowning achievements: the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a former mosque that had been torn down by Hindu nationalists in 1992. 

Yet not only did the BJP lose UP, it specifically lost the constituency — the city of Faizabad — in which the Ayodhya temple is located. It’s as direct an electoral rebuke to BJP ideology as one can imagine.

In Maharashtra, the second largest state, the BJP made a tactical alliance with a local politician, Ajit Pawar, facing serious corruption charges. Voters seemingly punished Modi’s party for turning a blind eye to Pawar’s offenses against the public trust. Across the country, Muslim voters turned out for the opposition to defend their rights against Modi’s attacks.

The global lesson here is clear: Even popular authoritarians can overreach.

By turning “400 seats” into a campaign slogan, an all-but-open signal that he intended to remake the Indian state in his illiberal image, Modi practically rang an alarm bell for constituencies worried about the consequences. So they turned out to stop him en masse.

The BJP’s electoral underperformance is, in no small part, the direct result of their leader’s zealotry going too far.

Of course, Modi’s mistakes might not have mattered had his rivals failed to capitalize. The Indian opposition, however, was far more effective than most observers anticipated.

Perhaps most importantly, the many opposition parties coordinated with each other. Forming a united bloc called INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), they worked to make sure they weren’t stealing votes from each other in critical constituencies, positioning INDIA coalition candidates to win straight fights against BJP rivals.

The leading party in the opposition bloc — Congress — was also more put together than people thought. Its most prominent leader, Rahul Gandhi, was widely dismissed as a dilettante nepo baby: a pale imitation of his father Rajiv and grandmother Indira, both former Congress prime ministers. Now his critics are rethinking things.

“I owe Rahul Gandhi an apology because I seriously underestimated him,” says Manjari Miller, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Miller singled out Gandhi’s yatras (marches) across India as a particularly canny tactic. These physically grueling voyages across the length and breadth of India showed that he wasn’t just a privileged son of Indian political royalty, but a politician willing to take risks and meet ordinary Indians where they were. During the yatras, he would meet directly with voters from marginalized groups and rail against Modi’s politics of hate.

Rahul Gandhi, India's opposition leader, speaks during a news conference at the Indian National Congress headquarters during election results night in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

Rahul Gandhi, India’s opposition leader, speaks during a news conference at the Indian National Congress headquarters during election results night in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.
Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“The persona he’s developed — as somebody kind, caring, inclusive, [and] resolute in the face of bullying — has really worked and captured the imagination of younger India,” says Suryanarayan. “If you’ve spent any time on Instagram Reels, [you’ll see] an entire generation now waking up to Rahul Gandhi’s very appealing videos.”

This, too, has a lesson for the rest of the world: Tactical innovation from the opposition matters even in an unfair electoral context.

There is no doubt that, in the past 10 years, the BJP stacked the political deck against its opponents. They consolidated control over large chunks of the national media, changed campaign finance law to favor themselves, suborned the famously independent Indian Electoral Commission, and even intimidated the Supreme Court into letting them get away with it. 

The opposition, though, managed to find ways to compete even under unfair circumstances. Strategic coordination between them helped consolidate resources and ameliorate the BJP cash advantage. Direct voter outreach like the yatra helped circumvent BJP dominance in the national media.

To be clear, the opposition still did not win a majority. Modi will have a third term in office, likely thanks in large part to the ways he rigged the system in his favor.

Yet there is no doubt that the opposition deserves to celebrate. Modi’s power has been constrained and the myth of his invincibility wounded, perhaps mortally. Indian voters, like those in Brazil and Poland before them, have dealt a major blow to their homegrown authoritarian faction.

And that is something worth celebrating.

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