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How Modi lost his magic – and his majority – in India’s election surprise

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NEW DELHI — Prime Minister of India until now Narendra Modi seemed unstoppable.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to dominate the world’s largest democracy since coming to power a decade ago. Hindu nationalist politics are becoming increasingly common India en route. Even what critics accused him of fuel religious tensionseroding human rights and muzzling the press, Modi was consistently rated as the most popular leader in the world.

It was only in January that Modi, 73, a large Hindu temple inaugurated at a disputed holy site in the northern city of Ayodhya, fulfilling a long-standing promise to followers and stoking fear among India’s Muslim minority, which has been increasingly marginalized under his rule.

It was a crowning moment for Modi that was expected to help him win favor with voters in Hindu-majority India as he seeks a rare third term and a supermajority for his party in this year’s widely expected elections. they were predicted to be a landslide.

On Tuesday, when the early vote count showed a much narrower result, it was a shocking rebuke of Modi’s rulewas the constituency to which Ayodhya belongs, one of the constituencies that the BJP conceded to the opposition.

Support for Modi is rising after he opened the Hindu temple last month, fulfilling his party’s long-held Hindu nationalist pledge. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

Instead of achieving the promised supermajority of 400 seats, the BJP won 240 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament, according to the final results. That is far fewer than the 272 needed for a simple one-party majority, such as the one easily achieved in the last two elections in 2014 and 2019.

But together with allied parties, the BJP has enough seats to form a coalition government and secure Modi a third five-year term.

On Wednesday, the Indian government said Modi and his cabinet had resigned as is customary after elections, with the Indian president asking them to remain in charge until a new government is formed. According to local media, he and his new cabinet will be sworn in on Saturday.

Still, the election feels like a defeat for Modi and his ethnonationalist agenda — and a stunning victory for the opposition, which has struggled to gain traction for years and welcomed the comeback of multiparty democracy on Tuesday.

“It is a rejection of the politics of hate,” said Rajeev Bhargava, director of the Institute of Indian Thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

“Ordinary Hindus and Muslims have been living together peacefully and they do not like divisions to arise,” he said.

India’s fractured opposition knew that defeating Modi would not be easy, and formed an alliance that looked shaky during the campaign.

Their problems were made worse by the arrest of party leaders and the freezing of party funds for which they blamed the BJP, which denied the allegations.

So it was especially nice when the election results started to show that their efforts were paying off.

Image: The world’s largest Democratic elections end in India ( Elke Scholiers / Getty Images)

Leaders of the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, said the BJP had turned the election into a referendum on Modi and that the setback voters had given him was a “moral loss.”

“In my mind, I knew that the people of India will be united for the Constitution,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters on Tuesday. “Today this was proven correct. I had confidence.”

Gandhi had left open the possibility of divesting two of the BJP’s allied parties and preventing Modi from forming a coalition at all, but on Wednesday both parties pledged their support to him.

Others were more surprised by the results, including one pollster who cried on television while being questioned about how his predictions of a BJP blowout could be so far off.

Indian stock indices, which soared on Monday after exit polls suggested a huge gain for Modi, peaked. worst day in four years on Tuesday before recovering from some losses on Wednesday.

Members of the BJP, meanwhile, took the results hard as their dreams of a Hindu-first nation seemed to fade. The party headquarters in New Delhi, where the mood was said to be triumphant, had largely emptied by 8 p.m., although many people returned shortly afterwards when Modi arrived to speak.

He quickly claimed victory, in a speech that emphasized the broader alliance and not the BJP alone.

Narendra Modi greets supporters in New Delhi (Manish Swarup/AP)

“This is the first time that a government is coming back for the third time,” Modi said as supporters chanted Hindu nationalist slogans.

Modi and his deputies had been away on campaign accused of using hate speech and other inflammatory rhetoric, especially against Muslims. The opposition, meanwhile, focused on issues like unemployment that plague India, even though it is that country the world’s fastest growing major economy.

Economic issues were mentioned repeatedly by voters NBC News spoke to in the final days of the election.

Regardless of who leads India, Bhargava said, “from now on there will be more focus on real material improvement in the lives of ordinary people.”

“And governments that don’t do that will be thrown out.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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