Indian election gives Rahul Gandhi a platform to challenge Narendra Modi’s dominance


Over years of ineffectual challenges to Narendra Modi, Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was ruthlessly mocked by the prime minister’s party as a “shehzada” or “pappu” — Hindi for a princeling and a naïf.

But the 53-year-old scion of the Indian National Congress party this week enjoyed the biggest breakthrough of his career. Congress and its opposition alliance, known by the acronym INDIA, pulled off a shock result in India’s general election by doubling their seat count and robbing Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party of its majority.

Gandhi and INDIA, apparently weakened by a decade of Modi’s rule and all but written off by pollsters before the vote, proved unexpectedly deft electoral strategists and are now in a position to seriously challenge the BJP’s dominance over the country of 1.4bn people.

“It was a David-versus-Goliath story,” said Gurdeep Singh Sappal, a Congress party official. “From now, we’ll be far more aggressive in building the organisation and raising issues. Whether we’re in government or opposition, we will work on an alternative vision for this nation.”

The BJP won 240 of 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament, while the INDIA alliance won 234. But the BJP’s lack of a majority will force it to rely on smaller regional allies to sustain Modi’s historic third term in office.

Some INDIA members even speculated the opposition could launch a long-shot bid to cobble together a ruling coalition of their own, with parliamentarian Sanjay Raut telling reporters Modi should “accept defeat” and be replaced by Gandhi. “He has proven himself as a national leader,” Raut said.

Such a scenario is highly unlikely, with Modi on Wednesday securing the unanimous backing of parties in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which together won 293 parliamentary seats.

But Modi’s reliance on coalition support and the prospect of a newly unified and emboldened opposition bloc in and outside parliament could dilute the strongman leader’s power and force him into uncharacteristic dialogue and compromises in his next term.

“People have lost confidence in the BJP as a single majority party,” said Manuraj S, a spokesperson from the INDIA-affiliated Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, where the alliance won all 39 of the state’s lower-house seats. “Now there’s much more of a mandate to be a robust opposition and therefore a mandate for the government to hear the opposition and respond to them.”

In the build-up to the election, Modi predicted a two-third majority victory for the BJP of more than 370 seats, vowing to use resulting sweeping parliamentary powers to turbocharge India’s economy with bold economic reforms.

Modi speaks at a press conference
The election result was the biggest setback for Narendra Modi since he became prime minister in 2014 © Prakash Singh/Bloomberg

Modi also relentlessly attacked the INDIA alliance on the campaign trail, characterising it as venal grouping of self-serving politicians. Authorities arrested two prominent opposition leaders on corruption allegations and froze Congress party bank accounts, in what INDIA claimed was a politically motivated crackdown.

In a speech as results were still being counted on Tuesday, Modi vowed to double down on the anti-graft drive, accusing his rivals of “crossing the limits of shamelessness”. “The third term will focus on rooting out all kinds of corruption,” he said.

Analysts say some of this rhetoric may have backfired, with the INDIA alliance framing their campaign as a bid to curb BJP over-reach and tackle economic issues such as joblessness and inflation that have persisted under Modi despite rapid economic growth.

Gandhi and other leaders repeatedly claimed that Modi wanted a two-thirds majority in order to change India’s constitution and take away benefits such as government job quotas for lower-caste Indians — something the prime minister denied.

Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator, said this proved to be an “emotive message” that appeared to resonate with lower-caste voters. “People don’t want unbridled power,” she said. “They want a vibrant and strong opposition to hold that government to account.”

The INDIA bloc also struck a series of seat-sharing pacts among alliance partners in key battlegrounds such as Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, that helped win dozens of seats from the BJP.

Supporters wave flags with Gandhi’s picture on them
Supporters of Rahul Gandhi at an election rally. The Congress scion has travelled widely to connect with poorer voters © Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

“I had realised long ago that people of India would stand up against the way the BJP has abused power,” Gandhi told reporters as votes were counted on Tuesday. “The Congress party will keep on fighting to protect the constitution and also ensure that parliament functions properly.”

The results mark a dramatic turnaround for Gandhi, the son of assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Italian-born Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

Gandhi, who oversaw historic Congress defeats to Modi in 2014 and 2019, long struggled to counter the prime minister’s powerful Hindu nationalist messaging and persistent attacks characterising him as a privileged, out-of-touch dynast.

Analysts say this began changing after Gandhi embarked on two months-long cross-country journeys by foot and jeep, travelling thousands of kilometres to meet voters and draw attention to economic distress.

Yet despite his unexpected success, this week’s result does not change the fact that the election was Gandhi’s third failed attempt to beat Modi.

“He has significantly evolved as a political leader [and] branded himself very effectively as distinct from Modi,” said Yamini Aiyar, a public policy scholar. But Aiyer said Gandhi needed to make the most of his new opportunity.

“This is his last chance to consolidate his leadership and invigorate the party,” she said.



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