India’s shock election result is a loss for Modi but a win for democracy

The unexpected outcome of India’s election has reasserted the unpredictable nature of its politics – and the strength and resilience of its democracy.

Expert comment Published 6 June 2024 4 minute READ

The surprise result of India’s election has reaffirmed the unpredictable nature of Indian politics. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has secured a third term, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to achieve outright parliamentary majority, falling well-short of its 370 target (400 with coalition partners) in the 543-seat lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha). Given Modi’s central role as the face of the party during the election, the disappointing result has damaged the Modi brand. 

Given Modi’s central role as the face of the party during the election, the disappointing result has damaged the Modi brand. 

While the BJP government had tried to leverage India’s rising global status and its Hindu nationalist credentials during the election campaign, local livelihood issues ultimately proved decisive for voters.

The BJP’s often divisive Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) rhetoric failed to resonate in large parts of the country, particularly those with a more cosmopolitan and secular outlook, and parts of the country with strong regional identities, such as the south, as well as with India’s religious minorities.

Its messaging on the economy, promoting India as the world’s fastest growing major economy, also fell flat in a country facing high levels of inequality and youth unemployment. Although India is seen as a potential beneficiary of the West’s push to de-risk or diversify supply chains away from China, manufacturing as a share of GDP has stalled while foreign investment inflows have declined. 

Is it downhill from here for Modi?

Despite his weakened position, it is too soon to write off Modi completely. He will be only the second prime minister in India’s history to secure three consecutive terms in office – the first being India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. And Modi has demonstrated an ability to reinvent himself. 

Although the BJP will be more beholden to coalition partners, it will form the next government as the strongest party in the Lok Sabha. After being a marginal force in India’s politics for decades, the BJP has proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the opposition Congress Party, which has led most governments in India’s post-independence history, won less than half the seats that the BJP secured. The world of Indian politics may be fickle but the BJP is here to stay. 

While the election result is a defeat for Modi it has reasserted India’s democratic credentials. Contrary to expectations that a third-term Modi government would be the death knell for Indian democracy, the election has shown that democracy remains strong and cannot be easily overturned in a country as large and diverse as India.

What happens now?

As the dust settles on the election a key area to keep an eye on will be cabinet appointments. There are likely to be some reshuffles as the BJP seeks to appease coalition partners. Notably, regional parties like the JD(U) (Janata Dal United) in Bihar and TDP (Telegu Desam Party) in Andra Pradesh have emerged as kingmakers given their proclivity for flip-flopping between coalitions. 

Modi’s weakened position makes it less likely that he will stand for a fourth term in 2029.

There are also upcoming elections in several states, including Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana. These will be important in the context of the BJP’s position in the upper house of parliament (Rajya Sabha) where the party still lacks a majority. States determine the composition of the upper house and a strengthened BJP position in both houses of parliament will make it easier to pass legislation. 

Modi’s weakened position also makes it less likely that he will stand for a fourth term in 2029. This will renew debates within the BJP on succession plans. The party’s poor performance in Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest and most electorally consequential state – will undermine the standing of the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who has been seen as a potential successor to Modi.

Policy implications

From a policy perspective, the election outcome will likely impact India’s policymaking efficacy, making it more difficult to make progress on some of the more politically sensitive economic reforms, such as land acquisition and labour reforms. These were challenging even before the election, as seen in 2021 when large-scale farmers’ protests undermined progress on implementing agricultural reforms. 

However, policymaking is also likely to become more consensus-based and less prone to abrupt shifts, such as the government’s sudden COVID-19 lockdown in 2021.

Although India will continue to pursue an assertive foreign policy, it will perhaps be a slightly muted version.

While the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric is likely to remain as the party seeks to appease its core supporters, the BJP it is likely to be restrained in pursuing its more controversial identity-driven policies. This includes efforts to implement a uniform civil code, which would entail a single set of personal laws across religious communities – and its plans to centralize political power through potential constitutional changes. 

The BJP’s manifesto pledged to make India a developed country (‘Viksit Bharat’) by 2047. A key policy priority of the new government will therefore be to create a more enabling environment for foreign investment and transform India into a trusted global manufacturing hub. From a foreign policy perspective, this will require progress on several ongoing free trade negotiations, including with the UK. Although negotiations will continue, a weaker coalition government in New Delhi and a possible change of government in Westminster is likely to delay progress. 


The Modi government has also pursued a more assertive and ideologically driven foreign policy, promoting India as a civilizational state. While this has been partly rhetorical – such as referring to India as Bharat and the country as a Vishwaguru (teacher of the world) and Vishwamitra (friend of the world) – there have also been substantive efforts to make India a bridging power between the West and the Global South, notably during India’s G20 presidency when it helped facilitate the membership of the African Union.

Although India will continue to pursue an assertive foreign policy, it will perhaps be a slightly muted version as the new BJP-led coalition government will be forced to turn inward after a disappointing election result. 

The more controversial elements of India’s more muscular foreign policy – that have seen allegations of Indian involvement in assassination plots in Canada and the United States – are also likely to be toned down.

The election result has highlighted the strength and resilience of India’s democracy and arguably reaffirmed its secular credentials. But it also raises questions about the impact of a weakened third-term Modi government on India’s policymaking efficacy and the assertiveness of its foreign policy.

Ultimately, the outcome is the best of both worlds in that it offers a degree of stability and continuity while the weakened mandate restrains the BJP’s ability to pursue its more divisive identity-driven agenda.