Opinion | Indian Voters Have Finally Woken Up

For weeks, the announcement of India’s election results loomed as a moment of dread for millions of people who cherish the country’s commitment to secular democracy.

Throughout the marathon voting process, it was considered a near inevitability that Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has galvanized his right-wing Hindu base with assaults on India’s founding values, minorities and basic decency — would win a third straight thumping victory. So assured was his Bharatiya Janata Party of winning an even larger share of parliamentary seats that in the long buildup to the general elections it taunted opponents with the slogan: “This time, 400 plus.”

But as the election results began rolling out on Tuesday, it was as if someone snapped their fingers and India emerged from a long period of hypnosis. Mr. Modi, who recently claimed that his birth was not a “biological” event but that he had been sent by God, failed to even deliver his party a simple parliamentary majority, leaving it unable to form a government on its own. He will probably remain prime minister for another five-year term. But his spell over voters seems to have been broken, and with it “Hindutva” — the B.J.P.’s project to turn India into a majoritarian Hindu-nationalist state — may have finally hit a roadblock.

Mr. Modi has towered over India since first sweeping to power in 2014. He is now diminished. In the 2019 elections, his party won 303 of the 543 seats. His government, which also included 50 parliamentarians from minor coalition partners, ran roughshod over the opposition. This time Mr. Modi’s party has secured a far fewer 240 seats, but will be able to form another coalition government with the help of partners who are needed more than ever. The opposition I.N.D.I.A. alliance — formed by the once-dominant Indian National Congress and more than two dozen mostly regional parties — nearly equaled the B.J.P. tally despite a deeply unfair electoral playing field.

During its 10 years in power, Mr. Modi’s party has, in the style of authoritarian regimes, captured or subverted nearly every significant institution in India. One of the richest political parties in the world, it created a fund-raising mechanism — declared unconstitutional by India’s Supreme Court earlier this year — to take advantage of anonymous political donations. The party has gone after its rivals using government agencies, tying them up in endless investigations, freezing party bank accounts and even jailing two chief ministers from opposition-controlled states in the run-up to the vote. The B.J.P. has used its power, money and pressure to split other political parties and engineer defections. It has effectively turned major television broadcasters and newspapers into propaganda arms, financially rewarding those who play ball and turning enforcement agencies on those who do not.

The government-controlled media treated the election as a contest between a predestined, natural winner and a bunch of wannabes. In the end, the opposition I.N.D.I.A. alliance, with the Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi as its national face, won over voters who had suffered the consequences of Modi’s governance failures and the misinformation it propagated through the media.

The young alliance shattered Mr. Modi’s aura of invincibility with a back-to-basics message that focused on the prime minister’s failure to deliver even minimal economic gains for many citizens, who face historically high unemployment, rising prices and growing inequality even while financial markets have boomed.

To have hope in the I.N.D.I.A. alliance might have felt like a leap of faith. But its performance in the election is an important declaration that there are still parties in India that are, despite their differences and the culture of fear that has helped to sustain Mr. Modi, united by a commitment to constitutional values and the will to stand against Hindutva. The alliance encompasses a wide national political base, including in states that are significantly more socially and economically advanced than many of those controlled by the ruling party. An I.N.D.I.A. alliance that can build on its success and stand up to Mr. Modi will be good news for the country.

Earlier this year, Mr. Modi, playing the priest-king, inaugurated a new Hindu temple in the pilgrimage city of Ayodhya. It was the culmination of a Hindu right-wing campaign to build a temple on the site of a centuries-old mosque that was illegally demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992. The structure was supposed to represent the victory of Hindutva and the marginalization of India’s 200 million Muslims — who have been vilified by Mr. Modi and violently attacked by Hindu mobs — and ensure that Hindu voters would carry him to an easy victory. But even with the temple — plus a new airport near Ayodhya, new roads and a revamped railway station to bring in worshipers — his party lost the parliamentary seat of the Faizabad constituency, where Ayodhya is located.

As the I.N.D.I.A. coalition’s campaign focused attention on Mr. Modi’s governance failures and the B.J.P.’s goal of changing the country’s inclusive constitution, the prime minister scraped the bottom of the barrel, going beyond even his usual dog whistles and portraying the opposition as poised to essentially hand the country over to Muslims. Yet Mr. Modi’s ramped-up anti-Muslim rhetoric appears to have not helped him — and may have even hurt him. Mr. Modi himself retained his parliamentary seat, but by a narrower margin than in the last election.

The I.N.D.I.A. coalition has cut Mr. Modi down to size and reopened the country’s political space. Mr. Modi will remain in power. But there is cautious hope that his government, dependent for survival on coalition partners who do not espouse Hindutva, will have less latitude to undermine democracy, or terrorize Muslims and government critics, and that parliament and state institutions such as the courts will once again function as they should.

On the ground, the changes wrought by Mr. Modi’s Hindutva movement over the last 10 years have not been uprooted; there is much work to be done. But supporters of a secular democratic India can now breathe a bit easier.

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