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The surprising results of India’s election
12th June 2024 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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On June 4, results came in from the largest democratic election in history. Over 640 million people voted in India’s election, which took place at over one million polling places across the country over the course of six weeks. 

Many predicted that India’s prime minister Nerandra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would dominate the election, grow their ranks in Parliament, and further impose their Hindu-nationalist ideology on the country. 

However, that wasn’t what happened. Modi was reelected, but his party lost over 60 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The BJP will have to govern as part of a multi-party coalition, and most likely moderate their Hindu-nationalist aspirations.

On this episode, you’ll hear from Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University and director of the Watson Institute’s Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia, about this historic election: what led to its surprising outcome, what it means for the Hindu-nationalist movement embodied by Prime Minister Nerandra Modi, and what it might tell us about the struggle for democracy occurring in countries around the world.  

*Trending Globally will be taking a brief summer hiatus, but we’ll be back in July with all-new episodes*

Learn more about the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts



DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On June 4th, results came in from the largest Democratic election in history. Over 640 million people voted in India's election.

REPORTER: 44 days, 15 million polling staff, 1 million polling stations. And at stake, 543 seats.

DAN RICHARDS: Many people predicted that India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, would dominate for the third election in a row, win an outright majority of seats in India's parliament and further solidify their Hindu nationalist movements grip on the country. And then the results came in.

REPORTER: The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has claimed victory, but his party's performance appears to have fallen well short of expectations. A smaller than expected mandate means Modi will have to lean on smaller parties for support. A massive change for a man who has kept power in the palm of his hand for two terms.

DAN RICHARDS: For the first time in Modi's tenure, his party will have to govern as part of a multi-party coalition. But what does this actually mean for India and what does it mean for the Hindu nationalist movement that Modi represents? To answer these questions, I spoke with Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University and director of the Watson Institute's Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia.

On this episode, what led to the surprising outcome of India's election this year? What it means for the Hindu nationalist movement embodied by Prime Minister Modi? And what this all might tell us about the struggle for democracy currently taking place in countries around the world?


Professor Ashutosh Varshney, thank you so much for coming back on to Trending Globally.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Pleasure to join you.

DAN RICHARDS: So I want to talk about India's election, of course, and the results we saw the other week. But I was wondering if we could start with a little bit about the man who was just reelected as prime minister. For listeners who might not be that familiar, who is Narendra Modi and what drives him?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Mr. Modi comes from a very underprivileged background, and that is one of the reasons for his political popularity. I can think of only one other long-serving prime minister of India who had a background as underprivileged or perhaps more underprivileged than his Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister from Two Thousand Four to Twenty Fourteen. But there was a very big difference.

Mr. Modi did not have the privilege to go to either Cambridge or Oxford or American Ivy League. He was home schooled. He was taught in regular Indian schools, and he has moved up the hierarchy through an organization called the RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

DAN RICHARDS: So what is the RSS and how did it shape Mr. Modi growing up?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So this organization is nearly 100 years old. And it is committed to the idea of Hindu primacy in India, Hindu nationalism, that India is primarily a Hindu nation. Hindus are 80% of India, 20% are non-Hindu minorities. The argument is that Hindus are the original peoples of India, and they should have primacy.

Technically, the RSS is not a political organization. It calls itself a cultural organization. It is committed to what it calls the cultural rejuvenation of India, and it believes that the cultural rejuvenation will come from making politics and society more Hindu-centric. They have organizations all over India, which meet regularly. They typically catch members when they are young in their teenage, and then they go through training instruction.

DAN RICHARDS: And Modi was brought into this organization around that age, right?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Correct. I think he was maybe 16 years old or 15 years old.

DAN RICHARDS: And what's the relationship between the RSS and the BJP, the political party that Modi now leads?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So the BJP, technically speaking, is their political arm. They can exchange personnel with the BJP. That's been part of the tradition. Mr. Modi was offered to the BJP sometime in the Nineteen Nineties or late '80s, and he's been with the BJP since then. It's not that all BJP leaders come from the RSS. There have been outsiders who have come in as it has become bigger and bigger. But the core of the BJP is still those who were trained in the RSS.

DAN RICHARDS: OK. So like you said, the Hindu nationalist movement in India has been around for a long time, including in the form of the RSS and the BJP. But in the last decade, this movement and the BJP as its political arm, has become a force in a new way. So what has made this movement so successful more recently?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So how is it that Hindu nationalism became so popular, or has it been popular all along. The answer is it has not been popular all along. It was a fringe movement when India became independent in Nineteen Fourty-Seven. It never even reached double digits in elections until Nineteen Eighty-Nine. Now, the question is, what changed around Nineteen Eighty-Nine?


DAN RICHARDS: As Varshney explained the story of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the BJP over the last decade in some ways starts with the Indian National Congress. The BJPs political rival, also known as just the Congress Party.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: The Congress Party was the party that led the freedom movement in India and was the party of Gandhi and Nehru, two most important leaders of the 20th century. It dominated the political scene after '47 till Nineteen Eighty-Nine.

DAN RICHARDS: But by the late Nineteen Eighties, the Congress Party was losing its luster.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: By Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was clear that the old style Congress politics was corrupt, hugely so, and some new ideas were needed. The new ideas could have come from two sides, the left wing and where the communists were, or the right wing where the Hindu nationalists were. The left wing ideas led by the Congress Party did not have appeal because civilizationally or terms of India's culture, it was very hard to understand a purely class-based argument, which the communists had.

They succeeded in two states, but it was not going to work in the largest part of India. It didn't make much sense to the electorate, but a culturally defined, a religiously defined alternative proposal started making greater sense as the legitimacy of the long lasting incumbents. Congress party declined. So BJP filled that gap with these ideas, and these ideas acquired ferocious popularity in the last 10 years.

DAN RICHARDS: Another key ingredient in this ferocious popularity was the profound charisma of the BJPs leader.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Very few leaders in India, you can count them on your hand, have wielded the kind of charisma Mr. Modi yields. Part of the charisma is built on something that would be called very counterintuitive in the west.

DAN RICHARDS: Which is that Mr. Modi is single. He was married as a teenager, but he left his wife.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: He doesn't have a family. He doesn't have children.

DAN RICHARDS: His lack of a partner or children is something that is an asset for him and other Indian politicians.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: The amount of corruption that Indian politics saw made him very attractive to the people because he would not use his office to make money for his family, for his children.

DAN RICHARDS: In addition to his charisma and seemingly unimpeachable nature, Modi was also supported in his rise by the vast network of the organization that shaped the RSS.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Which has a long term view of how to reform Indian politics and society, has very dedicated volunteers and members. And they were all ready to support him and to work for him to knock at the doors and get the vote out.

DAN RICHARDS: The BJPs popularity grew. In Twenty Fourteen under the leadership of Mr. Modi, the BJP won a majority of seats in that year's parliamentary elections, and Mr. Modi became prime minister.

REPORTER: The victory by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader, Narendra Modi had been widely predicted, but what hadn't was the scale of the landslide.

DAN RICHARDS: Five years later, in Twenty Nineteen, Modi and the BJP won again with an even more resounding victory.

REPORTER: The incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, has dominated this election.

REPORTER: The BJP and its coalition partners are leading by a long way 347 seats, a clear majority. The Indian National Congress and its allies trail behind on 87 seats.

DAN RICHARDS: Until this year's election, Modi's grip on power had seemed to only be growing stronger. And while there were a number of factors that led to the BJPs dominance, as Varshney made clear, it can also only be understood, thanks to the collapse of the BJPs rival.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: The strong force that it became by Twenty Fourteen that would not have been possible without the widespread corruption of the Congress Party and its allies. That is what created room for Mr. Modi's politics and Mr. Modi's organization. And that's how it spread from one state to many other states and made him an all India figure.


DAN RICHARDS: Any surprising victory involves an embarrassing defeat?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Yes. And this is a fairly common occurrence in most politics. Incumbents lose because they don't behave well and they don't understand the popular wishes or they abuse office and authority. And then the challengers come in.

DAN RICHARDS: International observers speaking of other polities, Modi has often been mentioned in the same circle of leaders like Erdogan in Turkey or Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the United states, part of a wave of somewhat nationalist, autocratic leaning strongmen. What do you make of that comparison? Do you see something coherent, shared among all these figures, or is it sort of too easy an analogy?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: No, I think, at one level, the analogy is very, very good. They all have what we call now in my discipline in political science, authoritarian tendencies, which lead to and I'm now using a political science term, Democratic backsliding. This concept emerged quite recently in political science, and it started covering a phenomenon, which was rare earlier, if not entirely absent.

Those who attacked democracy in the past generally came from the military or authoritarian civilian leaders who would suspend elections or stage them basically in the Democratic backsliding literature. The military is not an agent of Democratic erosion, elected politicians are.

The first thing they normally do is attack the non-electoral aspects of democracy-- freedom of expression, freedom of association, minority protection. So these are people who first attack that and then sometime, they start attacking elections themselves.

DAN RICHARDS: So what are some examples of Modi's policies that are either attacking elections or just generally fitting into this template of Democratic backsliding?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So Hindus are 80% of India roughly, and minorities are 20% and Muslims are the biggest minority, 14% plus that adds up to more than 200 million people. India, by that account, is either the third or fourth largest Muslim country in the world, even though Muslims are only 14%, because the overall size of India is so immense.

So Hindu nationalism doctrine originally was against both Muslims and Christians. But under its Modi incarnation, it has especially targeted Muslims. The adversary for Hindu nationalists has always been the Muslim. And we can get into details of this why this is so, that's because, in part, Muslims came to India from Central Asia and the Middle East to begin with. They ruled large parts of India between Twelve Hundred Six and Seventeen Fifty-Seven when the British came to India and started capturing India.

So there is that Twelve Hundred Six to Seventeen Fifty-Seven period in Indian history when large parts were ruled by Muslim kings, many of whom came from abroad, not all. Many were born inside. So the idea, the Hindu nationalism again and again and again and again without failure is that Muslims are outsiders. Even if so many were born in India, even if, in fact, an overwhelming majority was born in India. But they are not the original peoples of India is the argument. And Hindu supremacy has to be restored, which means Hindus and Muslims cannot be equal.

DAN RICHARDS: An idea which, as Varshney made clear, isn't just undemocratic.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: That is also a fundamentally unconstitutional idea. India's Constitution says all religions are equal. Every citizen, regardless of their religious background is equal to every other citizen.

DAN RICHARDS: So can you walk us through some of the actions he's taken to promote this anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist agenda?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So at three levels, there was a legal intervention. One was the only Muslim majority state of India, Kashmir through parliamentary legislation in August Twenty Nineteen, after the last victory, lost its status as a state, let alone as a specially protected state. Second, by December of that year when an unprecedented number of the lower house was BJP politicians.

Parliament passed a law which said that from Muslim majority neighboring countries-- Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, anyone can be a refugee in India and apply for citizenship except Muslims. Occurred in states that were governed by the BJP, nearly half of India's states and many of them Love Jihad laws were passed. What are Love Jihad laws? Love Jihad laws are that Muslim men cannot marry Hindu women.

What is the premise for this claim? that Muslims have historically used this trick marrying Hindu women to make their own numbers larger. And if this is not stopped, then very soon, Indian Hindus will become a minority in their own land. So even if it was a voluntary act between two adults, it had to be prevented. And some BJP states came up with these laws.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow. And these types of actions were surely on some people's minds during this election. And I want to look now at the election, because many people were surprised by the results. Modi had expressed optimism that the BJP would gain seats. In fact, the BJP ended up losing dozens of seats. Their coalition makes the majority, but the BJP no longer has the majority. What went through your head when you saw these election results? Were you surprised?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Not after my election travels in May. I had sensed it, and I wrote a column, I think, published on May 14 to 15. And I had sensed a change by traveling and talking to several hundred people.

DAN RICHARDS: What did you sense in those conversations?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So what I discovered, most surprisingly, while talking to average Indian citizens, not the elite that they were worried about what might happen to the Constitution. And they were worried about serious constitutional changes. One worry, of course, was that affirmative action for the lower caste might disappear. And, of course, the Muslim minority was very worried about Muslims being turned into second class citizens and Hindu primacy legally established.

A very important point you raised, if Modi had returned to power with BJP in a majority. Well, Modi's call was for 370 seats out of 543. What was the logic of that call? The underlying logic became very clear. For 2/3 of India's parliament, leaving out the lower upper house amounts to 364. 370 means he wanted 2/3 of seats going to the BJP. Why do you need 2/3 of seats? You can initiate serious constitutional amendments, including turning India's Constitution into a Hindu nationalist document and establishing Hindu primacy legally.

Enough people from the lower rungs of Indian society, lower Hindu castes, including Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste, or who have affirmative action, and the lower Hindu castes also have affirmative action constitutionally legally and Muslims. So the combination of muslims, Dalits and lower castes defeated Modi. So the concern for the Constitution is a very important new development at the level of mass politics.

DAN RICHARDS: So the election itself has maybe revealed something about the state of India's politics and society. But I wonder, what do you expect to be the biggest changes now in terms of how India is governed? What effect will this election itself have on the country?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So several things can be said about that. First, ideological purity turned into policy and governance will have to be compromised, modified, seriously diluted because Modi is an alliance, and the alliance parties are not committed to that ideology. In fact, one of the very important ones is committed to something called a caste census.

DAN RICHARDS: The caste system in India divides Hindus into groups that exist within a religious and social hierarchy-- a caste. And a caste census would bring light to some of the details of this hierarchy.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Which Modi never wanted. Because if you do a caste census, you will know which Hindu castes have what share of the resources, who is more educated, who is less educated, by how much, who has what kinds of assets. To put it simply, what is the level of privilege enjoyed by which group and what is the level of deprivation suffered by which groups? The BJP has always been against that, and Hindu nationalists in general, including the RSS, the parent [? organization ?] always been against that because they believe the more you talk about caste politics, the greater the attack on Hindu unity.

So this is one reason why you should expect the ideological purity to be seriously diluted. Second, India under Modi became less and less federal, more and more centralized. Power was concentrated in his hands in his office. I think one can safely say, the prime minister's office in India has never been as powerful. The way Mr. Modi started controlling India's FBI called CBI, India's election commission, which is an independent body. Independent constitutional body.

Those parts of the polity, which are supposed to check the executive and executive misconduct and have been constitutionally set up were all falling under his control and losing their executive oversight function. They were becoming an arm of the executive that will have to go now. And federalism also will see a bit of revival, not returning to its older health.

But when you have coalitional governments in India where a national party depends on regional parties for its survival, some parties are national, others are state-based. So once you have a coalition with state-based parties, the state rights, the state desires start becoming more prominent politically.

DAN RICHARDS: All the changes you just described or potential changes we could expect to see. What effect will that have on the treatment and marginalization of India's Muslim population do you think?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: So it is almost certain now that the Hindu nationalist political aggression towards the Muslim minority will have to go down. It has the potential of breaking up the ruling coalition. One very important member of the Coalition Party in the coalition is committed to minority rights in its state. So this can be a deal breaker so it will have to go down.

DAN RICHARDS: Let's turn to what this election means for the world. And maybe let's start with the United States and India's relationship. What does this election mean for that relationship?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: India and United States have been coming closer and closer and closer. India is not a formal ally of Washington. The defense, collaboration, et cetera do not touch the level of NATO collaborations, right?

However, short of an alliance, India is as close to the United States today as any country can be, and that will not be affected either by Modi regaining power as a Hindu supremacist, which is most unlikely to happen, or when he is in alliance as is true now. India is viewed by Washington as a counterweight to Beijing. That logic, that geopolitical logic will not be affected by any changes in Indian polity. And Mr. Biden, in his congratulatory note to Modi, has said roughly that.

DAN RICHARDS: As we wrap up, I wanted to zoom out even a little bit more to this global trend we have touched on of nationalist strongman type figures, some that are more easily comparable to Modi, others less so. But this election, I think many people have seen it as something of a victory for the opponents of this type of movement and this type of leader. Do you think we can or should read into this election at all for a sense of if this type of politics is maybe losing steam.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: Almost certainly that is true because of India's size and the fact that it's the largest democracy in the world and the fact that Modi became an international figure. If Modi had lost power completely, then it would have been called an earthquake. At this point, it's a big shake up.

DAN RICHARDS: While this election may not have triggered a political earthquake, there's one election later this year whose results could.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: But we can't be sure about what will happen in America in November. A lot in the world will turn on that. If Mr. Trump comes back to power, its international ramifications will be very different.

DAN RICHARDS: And while what we saw in India was maybe not an earthquake in the eyes of Varshney, we have yet to see its full effects.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: As politics are reconfigured in many parts of the world, what has happened in India will play a role.


DAN RICHARDS: Well, Ashutosh Varshney, thank you so much for talking with us.

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY: It was a pleasure to talk to you.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards and Zach Hirsch. Our engineer is Eric Emma. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield with additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a rating and review wherever you listen to podcasts. It really helps other listeners to find us. And if you haven't subscribed to Trending Globally, please do that, too.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics for the show, send us an email at Again, that's all one word, We're going to take a brief summer hiatus, but we'll be back soon with some all new episodes of Trending Globally. Thanks so much for listening.





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