Modi celebrates victory in India vote, but falls short of landslide

AFP , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

India's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed election victory for his party and its allies on Tuesday, but the opposition said they had "punished" the ruling party to confound predictions and reduce their parliamentary majority.

File photo: India s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) displays his inked marked finger after casting his ballot at a polling booth at Ranip, Ahmedabad on May 7, 2024. AFP


Commentators and exit polls had projected an overwhelming victory for Modi, whose campaign wooed the Hindu majority to the worry of the country's 200-million-plus Muslim community, deepening concerns over minority rights.

But for the first time in a decade Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure an overall majority of its own, figures from the election commission showed, meaning it would need to rely on its alliance partners.

India has placed its faith in the ruling coalition "for a third consecutive time", Modi wrote on social media platform X, referring to the BJP and its allies.

"We will continue the good work done in the last decade to keep fulfilling the aspirations of people."

'Right response'

The main opposition Congress party was set to nearly double its parliamentary seats, in a remarkable turnaround largely driven by deals to field single candidates against the BJP's electoral juggernaut.

"Voters have punished the BJP," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters. "I was confident that the people of this country would give the right response."

With nearly 99 percent of votes counted, the BJP's vote share at 36.7 percent was marginally lower than it was in the last polls in 2019.

Modi was re-elected to his constituency representing the Hindu holy city of Varanasi by a margin of 152,300 votes -- compared to nearly half a million votes five years ago.

The election commission figures showed the BJP and its allies on track to win at least 291 seats out of a total of 543, enough for a parliamentary majority.

But the BJP itself had won or was leading in only 239, well down from the 303 it took five years ago, while Congress had won or was ahead in 99, up from 52.

Among the independent lawmakers elected were two serving time in jail -- firebrand Sikh separatist preacher Amritpal Singh, and Sheikh Abdul Rashid from Indian-administered Kashmir, who was arrested on charges of "terror funding" and money laundering in 2019.

'Moral defeat'

Celebrations had already begun at the headquarters of Modi's BJP before the full announcement of results.

But the mood at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi was also one of jubilation.

"BJP has failed to win a big majority on its own," Congress lawmaker Rajeev Shukla told reporters. "It's a moral defeat for them."

Stocks slumped on speculation the reduced majority would hamper the BJP's ability to push through reforms.

Shares in the main listed unit of Adani Enterprises -- owned by key Modi ally Gautam Adani -- nosedived 25 percent, before rebounding slightly.

Modi's opponents fought against a well-oiled and well-funded BJP campaign machine, and what they say are politically motivated criminal cases aimed at hobbling challengers.

US think tank Freedom House said this year that the BJP had "increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents".

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the capital Delhi and a key leader in an alliance formed to compete against Modi, returned to jail on Sunday.

Kejriwal, 55, was detained in March over a long-running corruption probe, but was later released and allowed to campaign as long as he returned to custody once voting ended.

"When power becomes dictatorship, then jail becomes a responsibility," Kejriwal said before surrendering himself, vowing to continue "fighting" from behind bars.

'Strength of Indian democracy'

Many of India's Muslim minority are increasingly uneasy about their futures and their community's place in the constitutionally secular country.

Modi himself made several strident comments about Muslims on the campaign trail, referring to them as "infiltrators".

The polls were staggering in their size and logistical complexity, with 642 million voters casting their ballots -- everywhere from megacities New Delhi and Mumbai to sparsely populated forest areas and the high-altitude Himalayas.

"People should know about the strength of Indian democracy," chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar said Monday, calling the counting process "robust".

Based on the commission's figure of an electorate of 968 million, turnout came to 66.3 percent, down roughly one percentage point from 67.4 percent in the last polls in 2019.

Analysts have partly blamed the lower turnout on a searing heatwave across northern India, with temperatures over 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

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