• World
  • India

Narendra Modi Secured a Third Term as India’s Prime Minister—But With Less Power Than Expected

7 minute read

Political pundits and exit polls were quick to predict that Narendra Modi was poised to clinch a third term as India’s prime minister in this year’s elections, which began on April 19 and concluded on June 1. The question was: could his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), win enough votes to claim a supermajority?

The answer became clear as the final results trickled in on Tuesday, June 4. With more than 50% of the votes counted, the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (which consists of several rightwing, conservative regional parties) have so far won 290 seats in India’s 543-seat Lok Sabha, or the lower house of parliament—falling short of the 400-seat mark the alliance boasted it would win, and effectively losing the single-party majority Modi has enjoyed since first elected in 2014. The ruling party on its own has claimed 238 seats—also a stark departure from the BJP’s thumping victory in 2019 when it won an unprecedented 303 seats.

In contrast, the opposition INDIA alliance—which is made up of more than 20 opposition parties including the Indian National Congress—won 235 seats, performing better than expected. Final results are expected late on Tuesday or early on Wednesday.

Under India’s electoral system, the party or alliance that wins more than 272 seats in the 543-member parliament can form a government. The vote was carried out in seven phases over six weeks and saw over 1 billion Indians heading to the polls—making it the largest democratic election in the world.

73-year-old Modi, a charismatic yet polarizing leader, will preside over a rare, third consecutive term in office. Only one other Indian Prime Minister, Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first prime minister, has done so before. Speaking at the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi on Tuesday evening, Modi praised India’s election process and celebrated the BJP’s achievements. “No government has come back into power for a third time since 1962,” he said, adding the number of votes for the BJP had doubled in some areas.

But while Modi will likely be able to move forward with his promised Hindu-nationalist agenda and slate of economic reforms, the BJP’s smaller-than-expected majority means that he may face a more powerful opposition than at any point over the past decade—making implementation difficult unless the BJP negotiates with smaller alliances and opposition leaders.

“This election is undoubtedly a rebuke for Modi and the BJP,” says Milan Vaishnav, the Director of the South Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “After ten years in power, it was in many ways a referendum on its track record in office and there are clearly many Indians who are feeling restless and uneasy.” 

How did India vote? 

To win a landslide victory, the BJP needed to make electoral gains in two crucial areas.  It needed to break ground in the southern states, which seemed unlikely given that it has traditionally had less sway among a diverse and more economically developed non-Hindi-speaking electorate. And it needed to grab more votes in strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which is seen as a bellwether for how the rest of the country will vote.

The BJP managed to pull off stunning breakthroughs in the south, winning one seat in the left-leaning state of Kerala, where it has never won before. It retained its stronghold in Karnataka, grabbing 19 seats compared to nine for INDIA. And it tied in Telangana, where the opposition defeated the BJP in state elections held last year, by securing eight seats.

But surprisingly, the BJP performed unevenly across the Hindi belt and suffered perhaps its biggest loss in Uttar Pradesh, where Modi inaugurated a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya just months ago, fulfilling a three-decade-old BJP promise and cementing his Hindu-nationalist legacy. Early tally suggested the BJP alliance won only 35 out of 80 seats—a stark contrast to the 71 and the 62 seats won during the 2014 and 2019 elections that helped fuel the party’s rise to power in Delhi.

This time, a divisive campaign saw Muslim votes in the state consolidated for the opposition coalition, formed between two major parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. “The loss in Uttar Pradesh is particularly significant as this state is the cradle of the Hindu nationalist movement,” says Gilles Vernier, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “These results shatter the myth of [Modi’s] invincibility in national elections, particularly in the Hindi-speaking North.”

The BJP swept through its other stronghold states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. In comparison, the opposition alliance made marginal gains in Bihar and Rajasthan, as well as Haryana and Punjab. 

“What’s complex about this election is it appears more like a state-by-state contest with no unifying national narrative,” says Vaishnav. “At some point, the popularity of the alternatives and other local factors also become prime factors,” he continues.

What do the results say about the BJP’s electoral mandate?

In this election, Modi campaigned on the slogan of “Modi’s guarantee,” referring to the more than 300 welfare programs that have delivered benefits to Indian citizens across the country, ranging from cooking gas to free housing. While these benefits were viewed as a key concern for voters, research also found limited hard evidence of “schemes translating into votes.”

Modi and the BJP also boasted of reducing poverty in the world’s fifth-largest economy, with development featuring high on the prime minister’s agenda. While India’s GDP grew at a rate of 7.8% in the last quarter, widening inequality, the rising cost of living, and record-high unemployment nevertheless remained big concerns for voters, as evident in credible pre-poll surveys.

“Narendra Modi’s government has ignored ground-level discontent about economic distress and jobless growth,” says Verniers. “This election might be the moment where economic reality caught up.”

Going into his third term, Modi has touted an ambitious economic reform agenda that he hopes will make India the world’s third-largest economy by 2047. The BJP’s failure to win a majority, however, means that he will now face a challenge in implementing his economic policy unless he forms alliances with smaller parties. The impact was already reverberating in India’s stock market early Tuesday when the Nifty 50 index tumbled as much as 8.5% —the biggest drop in a single day in more than four years—after surging to a record high on Monday, when exit polls indicated a comfortable Modi win.

Modi now faces a more powerful opposition than at any point over the past decade. Throughout the election, the INDIA alliance has accused the government of crippling the opposition by jailing two state leaders and freezing Congress bank accounts. 

“For the first time since he became PM in 2014, Narendra Modi will have to share power effectively with coalition partners,” says Verniers. “This is uncharted territory for a leader who has always exercised power alone.”

But the results are undoubtedly a personal setback for the prime minister, whose face has been the central promise of the BJP’s campaign this election—featured on billboards, posters, and campaigns across the country—and who has never had to depend on coalition partners for survival. 

“Only time will tell whether he will learn the art of conciliation and power-sharing, or press down the path of autocratization to compensate for the loss of political ground,” Vernier adds. 

“This is the most important question India faces at the moment.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com