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India's prime minister, humbled by voters, is sworn in again

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures to the gathering during the oath-taking ceremony at presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday.
Money Sharma
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AFP via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures to the gathering during the oath-taking ceremony at presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday.

MUMBAI, India — The Indian leader Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister on Sunday for a rare third term after nearly two months of voting in the world’s largest democracy. But for the first time, Modi will lead a coalition after his party was humbled in its traditional stronghold of the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India.

Modi, 73, made history by being elected three consecutive times. The last person to do that was Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers of modern India and its first prime minister.

But Modi’s vow that he’d win a supermajority, which would have allowed him to reshape the Indian state that Nehru created, was dashed.

The prime minister will lead a coalition government after voters defied the predictions of exit polls, India’s mainstream media, and the markets that Modi's BJP party would win a supermajority of two-thirds of all parliamentary seats.

As tallying began on June 4, it quickly became clear that the BJP would not clear a simple majority of 272, although it won the largest number of seats. It won 240 seats, and with its allies, secured 293.

Modi’s coalition now relies on allies, including two kingmakers, to retain power: N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party in southern Andhra Pradesh state, and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) in eastern Bihar state.

President Droupadi Murmu administered the oath at India’s presidential palace, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, in the capital New Delhi at twilight after a sweltering summer day. The audience included some of India’s biggest movie stars and its wealthiest businessmen, including India’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani.

The close mingling of business and power appeared to be one of the key reasons why fewer Indians cast their vote for Modi than in the past.

There was a widespread perception among voters that the prime minister had swelled the coffers of big business while ordinary Indians struggled with low wages, high unemployment and rising prices.

Analysts say there was also a swing against Modi’s BJP by Dalits, who form India’s most oppressed castes, particularly in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

The results were also a cautious relief to many Muslims, who form India’s largest minority. They were often the target of hateful comments by the Hindu nationalist BJP. That includes Modi, who described them as "infiltrators" at a campaign rally.

“They’ve got breathing space, that’s what everyone is saying,” says author and activist Rana Ayyub.But nobody’s expecting an overnight change in their fortunes.” 

Some analysts say this coalition government might be the best possible outcome for India: Modi, an experienced leader at the helm, but his most authoritarian tendencies curbed by his coalition. “Ultimately, the outcome is the best of both worlds in that it offers a degree of stability and continuity while the weakened mandate restrains the BJP’s ability to pursue its more divisive identity-driven agenda,” wrote Chietigj Bajpaee, a South Asia senior research fellow at Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank.

Critics say Modi undermined India’s democracy with attacks by Hindu nationalists against minorities, and shrinking space for dissent and free media. He was widely perceived as using state institutions to shore up his power, from security agencies, law enforcement, and India’s election commission.

But restoring the health of India’s democracy — that might take longer. “For 10 years, India has followed a trajectory of de-democratisation,” wrote Christophe Jaffrelot, one of the world’s preeminent experts on Indian politics. “And, nobody can anticipate the techniques that Mr. Modi may resort to, to save his post,” he wrote.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.