The 2024 Indian general elections marked a pivotal moment in the country’s democratic journey with outcomes that were both surprising and revealing. Despite the exit polls and Indian media’s initial projections of a sweeping victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the final results painted a more complex picture.

The BJP secured 240 seats, falling short of the 272 needed for an outright majority, forcing Modi to rely on the support of the National Democratic Alliance’s “unreliable” partners to form a government. This outcome, while seemingly a setback for Modi, does not signify the end of majoritarian nationalism in India.

Modi’s campaign for a third term was marked by a relentless focus on divisive rhetoric and anti-Muslim sentiment. The BJP’s strategy hinged on portraying Muslims as “infiltrators” and “jihadis” and accusing the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi of pandering to Muslim interests at the expense of Hindus. This narrative was amplified through social media and public speeches, creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility.

Despite this aggressive communal strategy, the electorate’s response was mixed, with economic issues such as unemployment and inflation taking precedence for many voters.

The 2024 elections were marred by serious irregularities and a systemic failure of the Election Commission. Reports of Muslim names being removed from electoral rolls and instances of Muslims being prevented from voting highlighted the discrimination and disenfranchisement.

The Election Commission and judiciary failed to hold BJP leaders accountable for their hate speech, reflecting a broader capitulation of institutions meant to uphold justice and democratic principles. This failure to act against incitement and discrimination underscores the persistent threats to India's secular democracy.

While Hindutva has a significant appeal, it was insufficient to secure a majority in the face of pressing economic concerns. The BJP’s inability to address issues like jobless growth, rising inequality, and economic distress in rural areas contributed to their reduced seat count.

Voters in regions like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where local livelihood issues were paramount, rejected the BJP’s divisive tactics. This shift in voter sentiment underscores a critical juncture for India’s future, where economic realities have started to overshadow ideological extremism.

For the first time, Modi will govern without an outright majority, necessitating a coalition with “secular” partners such as the Janata Dal (United) and the Telugu Desam Party. This coalition dynamic may lead to a more collaborative and democratic approach to governance, potentially diluting the BJP’s majoritarian agenda. Moreover, the presence of powerful coalition partners also exposes the political vulnerability of “strongman” Modi, as these partners have the potential to topple the government if their demands are not met.

Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

Despite the electoral setback, Modi is likely to remain in power, and majoritarian nationalism remains a potent force in Indian politics. The BJP’s anti-Muslim agenda continues to resonate with a substantial voter base, reflecting deep-seated prejudices and societal divisions.

The normalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment and dehumanisation, perpetuated by years of inflammatory rhetoric, poses a significant threat to India’s social cohesion and democratic fabric. Historical lessons from atrocities in Nazi Germany and Rwanda highlight the dangers of unchecked prejudice and the need for vigilant protection of minority rights.

The failure of India’s institutions to check majoritarian excesses and uphold democratic principles is a cause for concern. The Election Commission’s inaction against hate speech and the judiciary’s reluctance to intervene highlight systemic weaknesses that need urgent addressing. Strengthening these institutions and ensuring accountability for incitement and discrimination are crucial steps in safeguarding India's democracy.

The Opposition INDIA coalition’s better-than-expected performance, winning 235 seats, indicates a robust challenge to the BJP’s dominance. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge hailed the results as a mandate against the BJP’s politics of hate and a defense of the Constitution. The Opposition’s role, under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in holding the government accountable and pushing for inclusive policies will be critical in the coming years. Civil society must also play a proactive role in advocating for the rights of marginalised communities and challenging divisive narratives.

The 2024 elections have provided a momentary reprieve for Indian democracy, but the underlying challenges of majoritarian nationalism and institutional weaknesses remain. Modi’s reduced majority and the necessity of coalition governance offer an opportunity for a more balanced and consultative approach. However, the persistence of anti-Muslim sentiment and the BJP’s reliance on divisive tactics underscore the need for continued vigilance and resilience.

India’s journey towards a secure and inclusive democracy is ongoing, requiring steadfast commitment to constitutional values and human rights. The electorate’s rejection of divisive politics in favor of economic concerns is a positive sign, but the battle against ideological hatred and majoritarianism is far from over. As the country moves forward, the lessons of the 2024 elections must guide efforts to build a more just and equitable society for all its citizens.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden.