‘Indian democracy fought back’: Modi humbled as opposition gains ground

<span>After a decade in power, Narendra Modi’s aura of invincibility may be on the wane.</span><span>Photograph: PIB/AFP/Getty Images</span>
After a decade in power, Narendra Modi’s aura of invincibility may be on the wane.Photograph: PIB/AFP/Getty Images

It was widely described as the week that India’s beleaguered democracy was pulled back from the brink. As the election results rolled in on Tuesday, all predictions and polls were defied as Narendra Modi lost his outright majority for the first time in a decade while the opposition re-emerged as a legitimate political force. On Sunday evening, Modi will be sworn in as prime minister yet many believe his power and mandate stands diminished.

For one opposition politician in particular, the humbling of the strongman prime minister was a moment to savour. Late last year, Mahua Moitra, one of the most outspoken critics of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), found herself unceremoniously expelled from parliament and kicked out of her bungalow, after what she described as a “political witch-hunt” for daring to stand up to Modi.

Related: An MP, her ex and their dog: Mahua Moitra’s battle with India’s parliament

The murky and allegedly undemocratic circumstances of Moitra’s expulsion from parliament was seen by many to symbolise Modi’s approach to dissenting voices and the steady erosion of India’s democracy. She was among several vocal opposition politicians who were subjected to investigations by government crime agencies.

But having won a landslide re-election in her home state of West Bengal, Moitra will return once again to parliament, part of the newly empowered opposition coalition. “I can’t wait,” said Moitra. “They went to egregious lengths to discredit and destroy me and abused every process to do it. If I had gone down, it would have meant that brute force had triumphed over democracy.”

While he may be returning for a historic third term, many have portrayed the results as something of a defeat for Modi, who has had to rely on coalition partners to form a government. The BJP’s campaign had been solely centred around him – even the manifesto was titled “Modi’s guarantee” – and in many constituencies, local BJP candidates often played second fiddle to the prime minister, who loomed large over almost every seat. He told one interviewer he believed his mandate to rule was given directly by God.

“Modi’s aura was invincibility, that the BJP could not win elections without him,” said Moitra. “But the people of India didn’t give him a simple majority. They were voting against authoritarianism and they were voting against fascism. This was an overwhelming, resounding anti-Modi vote.”

During his past decade in power, Modi and the BJP enjoyed a powerful outright majority and oversaw an unprecedented concentration of power under the prime minister’s office, where key decisions were widely known to be made by a select few.

The Modi government was accused of imposing various authoritarian measures, including the harassment and arrest of critics under terrorism laws, while the country tumbled in global democracy and press freedom rankings. Modi never faced a press conference or any committee of accountability for the often divisive actions of his government. Politicians regularly complained that parliament was simply reduced to a rubber-stamping role for the BJP’s Hindu-first agenda.

Yet on Tuesday, it became clear that the more than 25 opposition parties, united as a coalition under the acronym INDIA, had inflicted substantial losses on the BJP to take away its simple majority. Analysts said the opposition’s performance was all the more remarkable given that the BJP stands accused of subverting and manipulating the election commission, as well as putting key opposition leaders behind bars and far outspending all other parties on its campaign. The BJP has denied any attempts to skew the election in its favour.

“This election proved that the voter is still the ultimate king,” said Moitra. “Modi was so shameless, yet despite them using every tool they had to engineer this election to their advantage, our democracy fought back.”

Moitra said she was confident it was “the end of Mr Modi’s autocratic way of ruling”. Several of the parties in the BJP’s alliance who he is relying on for a parliamentary majority and who will sit in Modi’s cabinet do not share his Hindu nationalist ideology.

Speaking to his coalition partners on Friday, Modi’s tone was unusually modest and measured, emphasising that “consensus is necessary” and speaking of the need for “good governance”. Moitra said the prime minister’s situation had been summarised best by a popular comedian: “He might have a sword in his hands but the opposition has nicked the drawstring of his pyjamas.”

Moitra was not alone in describing this week’s election as a reprieve for the troubling trajectory of India’s democracy. Columns heralding that the “mirror has cracked” and the “idea of India is reborn” were plastered across the country’s biggest newspapers, and editorials spoke of the end of “supremo syndrome”. “The bulldozer now has brakes,” wrote the Deccan Chronicle newspaper. “And once a bulldozer has brakes, it becomes just a lawnmower.”

Many noted that the most damaging losses faced by the BJP had been in poorer, rural, working-class areas where farmers, lower-caste communities and Dalits, one of India’s most marginalised groups previously known as “untouchables”, turned away from Modi in droves. In critical states such as Uttar Pradesh they ended up swaying the election outcome far more significantly than urban elites and middle classes.

Yogendra Yadav, an Indian activist and politician who was a lone voice in accurately predicting the outcome of the election, said there was not yet widespread anger at Modi but instead “a sense of tiredness and frustration that the BJP had become arrogant and cut off from the people and their issues”.

Yadav said the significant losses suffered by the BJP in states that were previously its bastion were mostly due to frustrations over chronic unemployment and inflation and perceptions that the Modi government was against farmers. Among Dalits, there was a palpable fear that Modi intended to change the constitution and take away their privileges and quotas enshrined in it.

“This was not a normal election, it was clearly an unfair and unlevel playing field,” said Yadav. “But still, there is now a hope and a possibility that the authoritarian element could be reversed.”

Harsh Mander, one of India’s most prominent human rights and peace activists who is facing numerous criminal investigations for his work, called the election the “most important in India’s post independence history”, adding: “The resilience of Indian democracy has proved to be spectacular.”

He said it was encouraging that an “intoxication of majoritarian hate politics” had not ultimately shaped the outcome, referring to Modi’s apparent attempts to stir up religious animosity on the campaign trail as he referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children”.

“The past decade has seen the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience and dissent taken away,” said Mander. “If this election had gone fully the BJP way, then India would not remain a constitutional secular democracy.”

Mander said be believed that if the election had been fairly fought, it would have been an outright defeat for Modi. Yet he also cautioned against seeing the outcome as a clear turning point for India, as questions remain about whether the prolonged assault on dissent, the use of federal agencies to go after opponents and the lengthy detention of critics without trial will continue unabated.

“I have charges against me from every federal agency. I could spend this life and the next in prison. What happens to all of those cases?” said Mander. “The climate of fear still remains.”