Where it went wrong for Modi, the strongman who lost grip on reality

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By Kapil Komireddi/The Times

London, June 8: The redeeming power of democracy was on shimmering display last week in India. On Tuesday morning, Narendra Modi awoke as the father of what his followers call New India — a Hindu-first state built on the remains of the secular ideals that had been the basis of India’s national identity for more than six decades. By the time he retired to bed, New India was dead and Modi’s aura of invincibility was in shreds.

If Modi looked like a loser despite winning more seats than any of his rivals, the fault was entirely his. He had launched the election campaign by asserting that he was going to return with a supermajority, portrayed his critics as stooges of an international conspiracy and used rhetoric steeped in anti-Muslim hysteria.

He mythologised himself as India’s saviour only to become a captive of his own conceit. By the end of the contest, staggered over six scalding weeks, Modi showed signs of having lost touch with reality. He claimed to be a divine agent, guided by supernatural forces. “When my mother was alive, I used to believe that I was born biologically,” he told a worshipful journalist. “After she passed away, upon reflecting on all my experiences, I was convinced that God has sent me.”

Indian voters felt otherwise, and the judgment they delivered left his party nearly two dozen seats short of a majority. After a decade in which Hinduism had been elevated to the status of de facto state creed, the result was an extraordinary affirmation of Indian ecumenicalism.

In Uttar Pradesh, the populous Hindu-nationalist stronghold and the most consequential state by numbers, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went from 62 seats to 35. The BJP was defeated even in Ayodhya, where, in January, Modi had inaugurated a Hindu temple on the site of a razed Mughal-era mosque, and held it up as the emblem of his New India. The message was unmistakable. Even televangelists who had spent the past decade cheering Modi on saw in the outcome a repudiation of his sectarian ideology.

The result also reflected the deepening rage against India’s transformation into an oligarchy. Modi cast himself as a tribune of the left-behinds, but on his watch India has degenerated into one of the world’s most unequal nations. Disparity of wealth and income in Modi’s India, a recent study by the World Inequality Lab has noted, is worse than it was under the British Raj. Modi promised to create 20 million jobs a year, but unemployment is so rife that, when the Indian railways advertised 35,000 vacancies in 2022, more than ten million people showed up for the recruitment exam. Worse, according to the International Labour Organisation, India’s youth account for 83 per cent of the country’s unemployed.

Given this record, the surprising thing is not that Modi did not win a majority. It is that he has not become extinct.

If Modi continues in office, the credit has to go the opposition, principally Congress — the Indian National Congress Party. Its argument that the deck was stacked against it by Modi, who seized control of virtually every autonomous institution and set them on the opposition, obscures the fact that none of this is novel. In 1975, Indira Gandhi went further than Modi when she shelved the constitution and ruled for 21 months as a dictator. Habeas corpus was suspended, the press was censored and the opposition thrown in jail. When elections were called in 1977, the opposition set aside their differences and united against the government. Gandhi did not merely lose the election: she lost her own seat.

In 2024, many of the opposition parties pretending to be martyrs for democracy in Modi’s India are in reality profoundly anti-democratic entities run for the benefit of the families that own them. The most egregious of them all is Congress, which pioneered dynasticism. Since 1977, barring a brief interregnum in the 1990s, the party, operating in the most populous democracy on Earth, has not known a single leader outside one family. In no other serious democracy would Rahul Gandhi, the sixth-generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, survive after losing three successive general elections. In India, however, he is being exalted by sycophants for inflicting a “moral” defeat on Modi.

Modi’s problem is not the opposition; it is his allies, and his own party. He has never known what it is like to work without unconstrained authority. From his appointment as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001 to his election as prime minister of India in 2014, his reputation as a strongman who gets things done was contingent on comfortable parliamentary majorities. Now Modi must co-operate with coalition partners to survive. He must bargain, barter and — hardest of all for him — compromise. He must cultivate a democratic disposition that is alien to his style of governing.

The partners propping him up, ranging from secularists to socialists, are not enamoured of him. Many backed him to piggyback on his popularity. They stay with him now because, indispensable to his survival, they are in pole position to walk away with prized portfolios in government.

Modi is not entirely unprepared for this moment. Over the past decade, his party mastered the craft of poaching MPs from other parties through coercion or enticement. He will almost certainly try to ingest legislators from rivals to enlarge the BJP. But his past ability to direct government agencies allegedly to intimidate his rivals was a sordid perk that came with his party’s omnipotence in parliament. That dominance gone, bureaucrats will feel less inclined to act as his henchmen.

Modi is also suddenly vulnerable within his own party and the wider Hindu nationalist movement, which abhors cults of personality. The resources and energy lavished on portraying him as a man of destiny were tolerated as long as he won elections. But now his star is fading, and ambitious young competitors, who owe their careers to Modi’s patronage but are more radical than him, can smell blood. There are at least two significant state elections due in the next six months. Modi will have to lead his party to resounding re-elections in both to solidify his position.

If everything fails, Modi will be left with the nuclear option: another general election, as early as next year. But even dissolving parliament will not be easy, because his coalition partners could simply switch sides and bring the opposition into government.

Last week, Modi was the most powerful Indian leader in decades. Now he is trapped in an intractable position that he is not equipped by temperament to endure and from which he cannot easily extricate himself. No one should underestimate Modi’s Napoleonic flair for staging comebacks. But after ten years of wielding untrammelled power, he now looks raddled and cornered.

This is the beginning of his end.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India recently published in a revised and expanded paperback edition by Hurst


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