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India and the world may finally have reached ‘peak Modi’

The shock result of India’s general election has dented the brand of prime minister Narendra Modi whose party fell well-short of its target for seats in the Indian parliament.

A coalition will give India’s populist prime minister the number of seats to form another government. But the damage has been done.

Given that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fought the election with the prime minister as the face of the party, its poor performance raises questions about whether India has reached “peak Modi”.

There are four factors that explained Modi popularity – his development and economic reform-driven agenda; his party’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology; a more assertive and muscular foreign policy; and finally, the Modi brand, which like many populist leaders, alludes to his charisma and man of the people persona.

The election result shows that all four factors have run their course and are losing momentum.

The government tried to leverage India’s rising global stature – from last year’s G20 presidency to its space programme. And it also tried to use its Hindu nationalist credentials, as evidenced by the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in January, for electoral gain. But ultimately, it was local livelihood issues that drove voters.

Efforts to promote India’s economic accomplishments – as the world’s fastest growing major economy (having surpassed the UK two years ago) – was countered by high levels of inequality and youth unemployment in the country. Despite promoting India as a potential beneficiary of the West’s efforts to disconnect supply chains from regional rival China, manufacturing as a share of GDP has stalled while foreign investment inflows have been declining in recent years.

To be sure, it is too soon to write off Modi. The BJP is likely to form the next government and Modi will be only the second prime minister in India’s history to secure three consecutive terms in office.

Moreover, while the election result is a defeat for Modi it does reaffirm India’s democratic credentials, thought to be on the wane under pressure from the BJP machine.

The election has shown that democracy remains well-entrenched and cannot be easily overturned in a country of India’s size and diversity.

The price is perhaps the country’s policy-making efficacy as India returns to the era of unwieldy coalition governments.

India’s global aspirations

Where does this leave India’s global aspirations?

The Modi government had set ambitions for India to emerge as a developed country (‘Viksit Bharat’) by 2047 and a core component of this is making India into a more attractive investment destination.

This will require progress on a string of ongoing free trade negotiations with several countries, including the United Kingdom. This will continue, although in the context of a weaker coalition government in New Delhi and a possible change of government in Westminster.

Under Modi’s leadership, the government has also pursued a more ideologically driven foreign policy that seeks to promote India as a civilizational state. Some of this has been rhetorical such as referring to India as “Bharat”, a local Indian language name for the country, and the nation as a Vishwaguru (or teacher of the world) and Vishwamitra (or friend of the world).

But there has also been a substantive component with seeking to play the role of a bridging power between the West and the Global South as seen during India’s G20 presidency where it facilitated the membership of the African Union.

This assertive foreign policy will continue, although perhaps with less bluster as the government turns inward after its poor electoral performance. Moreover, some of the more controversial elements of India’s more muscular foreign policy, as noted by allegations of Indian complicity in assassination plots in Canada and the United States, are likely to be toned down.

In this context, while the election is a defeat for Modi, it is a win for India’s democracy and secular credentials, and arguably a win for India’s global role in the context of a more moderate and benign foreign policy. India may have reached ‘peak Modi’, but we have not yet reached ‘peak India’.

Chietigj Bajpaee is senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House