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Opinion | India Keeps Its Glorious, Messy Tradition Alive

Opinion | India Keeps Its Glorious, Messy Tradition Alive

Back in January, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India looked all but unstoppable, he visited the small city of Ayodhya for the unofficial start of his campaign to win a third term. The location was freighted with symbolism. For decades, Hindu nationalists had sought to build a temple in Ayodhya, at a spot they believe to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The only problem was that there was already a house of worship on the spot, a mosque built by a Mughal emperor in 1528. A Hindu mob had dismantled the mosque in 1992, setting off riots that killed 2,000 people, most of them Muslims. The ruins were a flashpoint of religious tensions in India for decades.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party promised to build the temple, and the lavish event at which Modi officially opened it was a showcase for that achievement. At the time it seemed like strong election-year messaging for a politician who built his career on the twin planks of Hindu nationalism and building a muscular new India. Unlike other politicians, the event implied, Modi made promises and kept them.

“It is the beginning of a new era,” he declared.

Feeling supremely confident, Modi had boldly asked the Indian electorate for something akin to a blank check to remake the country — control of 400 seats in Parliament in elections that began in April and concluded on June 1. And why shouldn’t he have been confident? India’s economy was the fastest-growing in the world. India had overtaken China as the world’s most-populous country. World leaders sought Modi’s support on issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis, cementing India’s ascent in global affairs.

But the ever unpredictable electorate of the world’s largest democracy responded to Modi’s demand for still more power resolutely: No thanks.

In a stunning rebuke, election results released on Tuesday showed that India’s voters have reduced the parliamentary share of Modi’s party by more than 60 seats, not enough for an outright majority, never mind the supermajority he had sought.

It struck me as particularly apt that despite all the fanfare about the glorious new temple in Ayodhya, Modi’s party lost the city’s parliamentary seat to a political opposition that had been all but left for dead.

There appears to be a clear ceiling to the appeals to Hindu identity on its own. “We are very happy with the temple but people were fed up with the B.J.P.,” a local business leader, Rakesh Yadav, told Reuters. “People will not always fall for the caste or temple-mosque politics. They also want to see development.”

This is a big year for democracy, almost a referendum of sorts on the very idea. Dozens of countries are holding elections, representing roughly half of the world’s population. But authoritarianism has been on the march. The latest report from Freedom House found that by many measures, global freedom has declined for the 18th straight year.

India, despite its status as the world’s most-populous democracy, has been a poster child for this decline under Modi: His government has taken aim at just about every form of freedom. He has attacked and grievously weakened the independence of India’s once boisterous press. He has jailed critics and political opponents. He has sharpened religious animosity, referring during this campaign to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s population, as “infiltrators” who seek to steal wealth and power from the Hindu majority. It’s an Indian edition of the nationalist, populist playbook playing out around the world.

That a newly unified opposition managed to prevent Modi’s party from winning an outright majority under these conditions took everyone, including me, by surprise. And it suggests that even when would-be authoritarians attempt to tilt the playing field, voters can and will state their will, no matter the autocrat’s preferences.

“The B.J.P. had positioned itself as a new hegemonic power,” Yamini Aiyar, a scholar and analyst of Indian democracy who has been a frequent target of Hindu nationalist rage, told me. “The beauty of an election is that politicians have to go to the people, and the people get an opportunity to express their anxieties and their perspectives.”

Express them they did.

Looking back, the weakness of the B.J.P.’s re-election case is clear: Yes, India’s economy was growing fast. But despite the flashy new infrastructure projects and deals to increase high-tech manufacturing, the growth was not creating nearly enough jobs, and inflation remained stubbornly high, especially for food, which hits the poorest hardest. Much of the wealth generated by growth has gone to India’s richest tycoons, and inequality has soared.

“The reality is that the real economy has been hurting for a very long time and they have systematically sought to ignore it,” Aiyar said.

India has managed to lift millions of people out of poverty since Modi came to power 10 years ago, but particularly in rural areas, where most Indians live, that has meant social welfare rather than jobs.

There were other issues too — Modi’s allies had floated the idea of changing India’s Constitution in various ways, including removing its commitment to secularism and enshrining Hinduism as the national faith. These kinds of appeals have helped the B.J.P. in the past but seem to have had less power this time around. One clear sign was its heavy losses in Uttar Pradesh, which is not just India’s most populous state; it is also part of the heavily Hindu heartland of northern India.

It also seems that the opposition may finally have gotten its act together. India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has been in decline for years and had struggled to make common cause with other opposition parties in previous elections. But this year they managed to make a much stronger coalition and focused on kitchen-table issues and highlighted the Modi government’s ties to big business and high-flying billionaires.

The opposition didn’t shy away from making the stakes for Indian democracy clear. But the relentless focus on what voters said mattered most offers lessons for those battling revanchist movements elsewhere, including the United States. Sometimes you need to meet voters where they are.

This vote wasn’t a total rebuke of Modi and his policies. He is all but certain to get his third term as prime minister by making a coalition with allied parties. But it is a clear and salutary check on his authoritarian project.

This election is also a rebuke of Indian elites — in business and media especially — who had willingly surrendered to a kind of inevitability of Modi’s long-term consolidation of power, making peace with it or even celebrating it. Activists, analysts and journalists who had the temerity to speak plainly about Modi’s revanchist project, the threat he posed to the world’s biggest democracy and its long history of tolerance, secularism and free speech have been hounded out of public life. I hope that this troubling slide ends now.

As the results rolled in on Tuesday, I remembered my own reporting trip to Ayodhya in 2009, when I was a correspondent for The Times based in India. An explosive new government report had just been issued about the destruction of the mosque and the role of Hindu nationalist groups in stirring up violence.

But when I got there, I was surprised to find that on the hotly contested spot itself there was hardly any hoopla. The crowds of Hindu nationalist volunteers who for years had routinely shown up to build the temple with their bare hands had disappeared. India was going through a period of hopeful prosperity. Voters had just returned the Indian National Congress party and its allies to power with a larger majority, and a brilliant, teetotaling economist named Manmohan Singh was prime minister. With the future looking so alluring, no one seemed all that interested in litigating the past.

These hopes were ultimately dashed amid scandals over political corruption and mismanagement. The Congress party, which once seemed unstoppable, lost power in 2014 for failing to deliver on its promise to bring India to its long-awaited place among the world’s richest and most powerful nations.

The years ahead will, with any luck, be ones of negotiation and compromise. This will be a return to form for India, a vastly diverse nation whose unruly polity has resisted autocracy at every turn since it shrugged off British colonial rule in 1947. The whole world should breathe a sigh of relief that India’s voters have spoken, loudly, in favor of continuing that glorious, messy tradition.

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