‘A sweet breeze amid a heatwave’: liberals feel hope again following Narendra Modi’s loss of his majority

<span>Students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has been the target of rightwing attacks since Modi came power, discuss India's general election results.</span><span>Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Observer</span>
Students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has been the target of rightwing attacks since Modi came power, discuss India's general election results.Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Observer

In the leafy surrounds of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a pocket of students sat beneath a banyan tree engaged in impassioned evening ­conversation. As usual, it was about politics – but this time the mood was different.

“For the first time in a decade, we have hope,” said Antariksh Sharma, who is doing his PhD in the arts. “It is like a sweet cold breeze amid a heatwave.”

Last week, India’s election results sent reverberations through the country after Narendra Modi, the strongman prime minister whose authoritarian, Hindu nationalist agenda had come to seem like India’s inevitable trajectory, lost his parliamentary majority for the first time in 10 years.

Related: The Guardian view on Modi’s election disappointment: the winner is democracy in India | Editorial

His Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) will still return to power, with Modi sworn in for a historic third term on Sunday night, but it will be reliant on coalition partners for the first time and will no longer enjoy the supermajority that has propelled its agenda since 2014.

Among analysts, the spell of invincibility around Modi was widely described as being broken and many believe the BJP will no longer be able to implement some of its more hardline policies.

For India’s liberals, who have long cautioned about an erosion of the nation’s democracy and its secular foundations since Modi came to power, it was celebrated as a moment of great reprieve.

Few had believed that India’s democracy was still resilient enough to stand up against Modi, who is accused of centralising power and bringing institutions and agencies of the state fully under his control, as well as using religious majoritarianism to win votes in the Hindu-majority country.

At JNU, in the heart of the capital, this election was deeply personal for many students, who saw the future of their university at stake.

Once seen as a bastion of India’s radical leftwing movements and protest, JNU has, since Modi came to power, become a focal point of sustained attacks by the right, which views it as a seething pit of “anti-India” activity.

The BJP has repeatedly accused the public university of being a stronghold of “urban naxals”, a derogatory term for leftwing activists that was repeatedly deployed by Modi on the campaign trail.

The BJP government, notoriously intolerant of dissent, stands accused of appointing stooges to senior positions and influencing the curriculum to align with its political agenda, while professors who criticised the government allegedly had their promotions blocked.

Several JNU students who took part in anti-government protests in 2020 were arbitrarily detained under draconian terrorism laws, and one former research scholar, Umar Khalid, still remains behind bars, deemed by rights groups to be a political prisoner.

PhD student Sharma was among hundreds from JNU who took buses across the country to campaign for the opposition, spending 10 days in the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand in an attempt to protect the country’s constitutional values.

Other students had gone out across Delhi, distributing opposition leaflets, putting up posters and even performing street plays about the issues at stake.

“People on our campus were being targeted by the BJP,” said Sharma. “But in recent days we feel we can talk more freely now and discuss things. There is less fear of getting attacked or labelled as anti-national, so we have already felt the impact.”

Just prior to the election, Bollywood – India’s vast Hindi film industry, which has ­increasingly become cowed by the government – released JNU: Jahangir National University, a movie about a campus where “leftists are waging love jihad”, a debunked conspiracy ­theory against Muslims, and “urban ­naxals are trying to divide the country”. Few were in doubt who the film was targeting.

Many JNU students claimed that over the past few years, rightwing student groups had increasingly been allowed to carry out violence on campus with impunity, particularly targeting minorities and Dalits, India’s most marginalised caste.

Meanwhile, restrictions have been put on student protests on campus, and when a group tried to broadcast a BBC documentary deemed critical of Modi, the administration cut the power.

“This campus has been under attack since the BJP government came to power,” said Kunal Kumar, 26, a PhD student from Bihar. “We were afraid to even identify outside as JNU students because of the kind of propaganda spread against the university. We were being labelled as anti-national.”

Yet on Tuesday, as the results rolled in, the mood had been jubilant among many, Kumar said, and a celebratory march took place on Thursday across the campus.

“There has been a change in mood in the campus since the results came out,” he said. “We are reclaiming our campus.”

Tanu Yadav, a Hindi literature master’s student who was headed for a night of study at the library, said women in particular had felt less safe on campus because of the presence of aggressive, all-male rightwing groups.

“This election time was not normal in JNU,” she said. “We were discussing, day and night, the implications of these results. Everyone was watching closely. We felt this election will decide if India becomes a dictatorship.”

Like many, Yadav said that the mood on campus had felt lighter in the past two days and the future of academic freedom at JNU looked brighter.

“Indian politics has proved to be much bigger than the ego of a man,” she said. “There is a hope things will get better soon.”