India's Modi is known for charging hard. After lackluster election, he may have to adapt his style


NEW DELHI — Since coming to power a decade ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been known for big, bold and often snap decisions that he’s found easy to execute thanks to the brute majority he enjoyed in India’s lower house of parliament.

In 2016, he yanked over 80% of bank notes from circulation in an effort to curb tax evasion that sent shockwaves through the country and devastated citizens who lost money. In 2019, his government pushed through a controversial law that stripped the special status of disputed, Muslim-majority Kashmir with hardly any debate in parliament. And in 2020, Modi swiftly brought in contentious agriculture reforms — though he was forced to drop those about a year later after mass protests from farmers.

In his expected next term as prime minister — when he will need a coalition to govern after results announced Wednesday showed his Hindu nationalist party fell short of a majority — Modi may have to adapt to a style of governance he has little experience with, or desire for.

And it’s not clear how that will play out.

“Negotiating and forming a coalition, working with coalition partners, grappling with the tradeoffs that come with coalition politics — none of this fits in well with Modi’s brand of assertive and go-it-alone politics,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

The surprising election results upended widespread expectations before the vote and exit polls that suggested a stronger showing for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In the end, the party won 240 seats — short of the 272 needed to form the government on its own. But the coalition it belongs to, the National Democratic Alliance, secured a majority that should allow Modi to retain power in the world’s most populous nation.

“India cuts Modi down,” read one Indian newspaper headline on Wednesday, referring to the 642 million voters as well as the opposing INDIA alliance, which clawed seats away from the BJP.

This is both a major setback and unknown territory for Modi, who has never needed his coalition partners to govern since first becoming prime minister in 2014. It has left him the most vulnerable he has been in his 23-year political career.

“These results show that the Modi wave has receded, revealing a level of electoral vulnerability that many could not have foreseen,” said Kugelman.

India has a history of messy coalition governments — but Modi, who has enjoyed astronomical popularity, offered a respite, leading his BJP to landslide victories in the last two elections. His supporters credit him with transforming the country into an emerging global power, matched by a robust economy that’s the world’s fifth-largest.

That economy, however, is increasingly in trouble — and fixing it will now require partners. His opponents focused on vulnerabilities despite the brisk growth, like unemployment, inflation and inequality — but his campaign offered few clues to how he might address those.

“Modi hardly addressed the question of unemployment — they skirted around it,” said Yamini Aiyar, a public policy scholar.

It’s not just that Modi will have to adapt to relying on a coalition. The election has also left him diminished after he spent a decade building a persona of absolute invincibility, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At the heart of his governance style has been his penchant for control, critics say, adding that Modi has increasingly centralized power.

But now to stay in power, Modi will have to do whatever he can to maintain a stable coalition, meaning he may have to govern in a way that is more collaborative since the smaller regional parties in his alliance could make or break his government.

The BJP’s lackluster performance is “undoubtedly a slap in the face,” Vaishnav said, of Modi, who confidently predicted at his first election rally in February that the party would secure more than 370 seats — 130 more than it did.

The gap between the high expectations Modi and others set for the BJP and its actual performance has left the victors looking like losers and the defeated feeling victorious.

Still, Vaishnav said “we shouldn’t lose sight that the BJP is still in the driver’s seat.”

To be sure, his most consequential Hindu nationalist policies and actions are locked in — including a controversial citizenship law and Hindu temple built atop a razed mosque. His critics and opponents decry those policies, saying they have bred intolerance and stoked religious tensions against the country’s Muslim community — and left India’s democracy faltering, with dissent silenced and the media squeezed.

Now, his agenda, and ability to push through policies going forward could face fiercer challenges, especially from a once deflated but now resurgent opposition.

The INDIA alliance, led by the Congress party, will likely have more power to apply pressure and push back, especially in parliament where their numbers will grow.

“Modi is Modi. But I would say that with the attitude with which he ran the country until now, he will definitely face some problems now,” said Anand Mohan Singh, a 45-year-old businessman in the capital, New Delhi. “Some changes will be visible.”

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Associated Press video journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.



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