Early last month, analysts began to ask when India might hit “Peak Modi” and whether the sharper, shriller tone that the prime minister and his party took following the first phase of elections may have been a response to the sense that they were frittering away the last opportunity to fully capitalise on the Modi phenomenon before Modi fatigue and anti-incumbency set in.

Instead – as scholar Devesh Kapur argues – we may well be past “Peak Modi”. That is not to say the prime minister is now widely disliked or to assert that he is no longer the country’s most popular politician, though the gap has narrowed. Neither of those claims would be accurate.

Instead, it suggests that the massive, unprecedented expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party over the last decade, which relied heavily on the popularity of Modi and his carefully constructed image of efficient governance, civilisational pride and being chosen by god to lead India, may no longer be the defining pole around which all other Indian politics is arrayed.

Over the past decade, the BJP underwent a transformation into a cult of personality, defining governance as Modi’s benevolence towards Indian citizens, while depicting the prime minister as an otherworldly – non-biological even – figure with a “1,000-year vision”.

What happens when that image is brought to earth by a result that isn’t a defeat, but punctures – above all – the claim that Modi singularly represents India, Indian civilisation and every Indian?

‘Normal’ politics

In other words, after 10 years that many believed had redefined the norms of Indian politics, marking a major break from the era of coalitions between 1989-2014 period, is India now back to “normal politics?

Political researcher Asim Ali writes:

“The BJP’s seat-share in the Hindi belt had hovered close to 80% in the last two elections, having steamrolled both the Congress and opposing Mandal formations. In this general election, the BJP’s seat share in the region has dropped markedly to around 60%, a shade above the 55% threshold the saffron party skirted around in the late 1990s (in 1996, 1998 and 1999). In that respect, the BJP’s current performance aligns more with its traditional strengths in the region but falls much below the high watermark of the two Modi waves. Broadly, it marks the return of ‘normal politics’ in the Hindi heartland…For the first time since 2014, the SP’s [Samajwadi Party] Mandal politics has overpowered the Hindu nationalism of the BJP. This has been achieved through a well-executed strategy of including Dalits in an enlarged Mandal coalition (what the SP leader Akhilesh Yadav terms the Pichda-Dalit-Alpsankhyak or PDA block). The party’s increasing representation to Dalits (including in non-reserved seats), along with its alliance with the Congress, succeeded in taking away a section of Dalits from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP towards the INDIA bloc. The BJP’s loss in Ayodhya to the Dalit face of the SP, Awadhesh Prasad, represents a memorable capstone to the SP’s winning strategy.”

Mandal was always supposed to be the way to take on the BJP’s Mandir politics, although there were many doubts about how successful this would actually be especially in the aftermath of the BJP’s success in state elections in late 2023 and Nitish Kumar’s decision to switch back to the Modi camp earlier this year.

Turns out it does work.

But this is not the same Mandal vs Mandir of the 1990s. Instead it is a form of Mandal politics that has developed in response to the BJP’s innovation and expansion over the last decade, as Roshan Kishore and Nishant Ranjan find, in this comparison of tactics between the Samajwadi Party in UP (where it pulled off stunning victories against a BJP expecting to steamroller the Opposition) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar:

The Indira example

To go back to the big picture, for a moment though: “Peak Modi” may have passed, but does that rule out a future Modi peak?

Winning a third consecutive term as prime minister puts Modi in a rarefied club, alongside India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (who, unlike the incumbent, managed simple majorities in each of those results, though obviously in markedly different circumstances).

But Modi is often compared to another Congress prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who – despite cultivating a larger-than-life image of her own – faced an even bigger electoral setback when she was voted out of power following her withdrawal of the Emergency in 1977. Instead of the defeat signalling the end of her career, Indira Gandhi managed to regroup and be re-elected in huge numbers in 1980, promising firm governance as a counter to the unwieldy coalition that had replaced her government in 1977.

The idea of tapasya (penance), of being tested, and of needing to spend some time in the wilderness have strong roots in Indian culture and could easily be integrated into Modi’s broader narrative.

Indeed, there are supporters of the current government who see a chastening result, without an outright loss of power, as a relatively manageable situation after 10 years of anti-incumbency, one that could even be beneficial in a subsequent election (it’s not hard to imagine, down the line, a campaign that calls for reinstating a full majority to Modi to bring back efficient governance, with interim policy failures being blamed on “coalition dharma”).

Credit: BJP @BJP4India/X

First among equals?

A few things come in the way of such a picture though. Indira Gandhi was 63 when she won the 1980 election. Modi is now 73, meaning however this plays out, the question of who comes after will only become more and more relevant to the machinations that take place, and that is a truly complex problem.

Moreover, to win a “comeback” victory involves admitting a setback in the first place. Modi’s modus operandi has generally involved refusing to acknowledge any shortcomings and indeed, at his victory speech following the election results, the prime minister made no mention of his party’s diminished numbers or the altered situation it now faces.

Maybe most importantly, Modi’s political-governance model has explicitly been built around the idea that all power resides in the Prime Minister’s Office, often ignoring even his own Cabinet ministers. Any internal bargaining that takes place has to happen behind closed doors, and then announced like a royal farman.

All credit for any success goes straight to the top, while failure is redirected towards bureaucrats, other politicians and often the public.

There are structural elements to this approach that have been core to the Modi model, and these will be hard to undo or alter because so much of the party and government has been built on this foundation.

At the national stage, citizens have never had to see Modi – and Amit Shah – operating in a more constrained political environment where consultation and bargaining with allies and opponents is integral to the process and carried out in the open, rather than a perfunctory afterthought that follows a grand gesture.

Put another way, is the Modi-Shah duo nimble enough to adjust to the new circumstances, finding a rhetorical register that acknowledges their own positions as representing just one set of interests in a broader system, after so many years of depicting Modi as the sole legatee of the national interest?

As scholars Neelanjan Sircar and Yamini Aiyar write:

“From his days in Gujarat to his meteoric rise to power at the Centre in 2014, political centralisation has been core to Prime Minister Modi’s model of governance. There is little to suggest that he will change tack now. This forms the critical question for governance going forward. Will the BJP continue to walk down the path of political centralisation that we have been seeing since 2014, or will it recognise the limits that the Indian voter has placed on it? If it chooses to ignore this message, new sites of resistance will open up, but these will unlikely be within the confines of democratic institutions, as we have traditionally known. And it is in this interplay between the political centralisation and resistance, that the next chapter of India’s democratic history will be written.”

Which model?

Will a shift in tone even be necessary?

Some have argued that, at the broader institutional level, just the fact that elections and legislative processes will be genuinely contested should force the BJP to switch gears. But at the political level within their own coalition, how much bargaining will Modi and Shah actually have to do? And on what themes?

The two biggest allies in the current government are Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). Neither is drastically at odds with the BJP’s overall programme, yet both also have important points of divergence that might get in the way of a number of the BJP’s priorities: the Uniform Civil Code, simultaneous elections, re-districting of Parliamentary seats etc.

What template do we have for how Modi 3.0 is likely to operate? As leaders of a government, both in Gujarat and in New Delhi, we have never had to see Modi and Shah face an electoral chastening like this one.

As leaders of the party, however, they have frequently presided over losses or inadequate results at the state-level. Their response to such situations (think of the Gujarat election in 2017, Karnataka election in 2018, the Madhya Pradesh election that same year, and the Maharashtra election in 2019) has been to use all tools at their disposal to shore up numbers, retain or regain power and unsettle opponents.

No wonder that it is the BJP’s own allies who reportedly are seeking some form of insurance:

“Sources said the two parties have already indicated to the BJP leadership that the Speaker’s post should be offered to alliance partners – TDP’s GMC Balayogi was Speaker when Atal Bihari Vajpaye was heading a coalition government in the late 1990s. This move, sources said, is to ‘insulate’ the alliance partners from any possible split in the future. The Speaker’s role is crucial in the anti-defection law because the time and nature of the final decision is entirely a call that can be taken by the Speaker.”

Were that demand to be conceded, it would give the Telugu Desam Party a fair bit of bargaining power. But the depiction over the last few days of Modi 3.0 as being easily controlled by Kumar and Naidu – the memes are everywhere – misses the fact that not only is the BJP a much stronger party within a coalition than our most recent examples, it also has spent the last decade building up leverage, both within state institutions and in terms of resources.

Once the initial period of bargaining over ministerial berths and other posts is over, how different will the new government be than the previous one?

Too much Hindutva (or too little?)

The answer to that question will depend to some extent on what happens within the BJP, rather than within the coalition. For the last decade, the Modi-Shah duo have been unassailable, racking up victories across much of the country (though not on every occasion), remaking the party in their image and shunting out or doing deals with older leaders that might have been seen as a rival power centres.

How does this change in a scenario where their electoral calculations have fallen massively short of the 370-400 seats that they promised the base? And, if and when a post-mortem takes place, will the conclusion fall on the side of too much Hindutva – given the prime minister’s campaign rhetoric and the expectation that the Ram temple consecration would mobilise voters – or not having polarised enough?

Given how much is dependent on the image of Modi himself, it is extremely unlikely that he will face any significant challenge, despite having failed to deliver in an election fought in his name “Modi ki Guarantee”). Can the same be said of his second rung, all the way up to right-hand-man Amit Shah? It doesn’t help that the biggest electoral jolt came from Uttar Pradesh, led by Chief Minister Adityanath, who was often described as a potential heir (even as rumours ahead of the elections swirled about the relationship between Lucknow and Delhi).

From journalist Nistula Hebbar:

“Within the BJP too, there will be changes from the current dynamic. After the Assembly polls in five States immediately preceding the Lok Sabha election, the party’s senior Rajasthan leader Vasundhara Raje and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan were replaced in those States. Mr. Chouhan has now won his Lok Sabha seat with a huge margin running into lakhs, and Rajasthan has seen the Congress make a comeback, snagging 11 seats in a State which had seen all 25 seats go to the BJP in both 2014 and 2019. This makes a case for a return of the old guard of the BJP – which predates 2014 – to some increased authority within the party. With BJP president JP Nadda currently on a extension after his term in the post ended in January, a new party president and a new organisational team will also be put in place before long, and that too will change the way the BJP has been functioning over the last decade or so.”

And from journalist Neerja Chowdhury:

“The words of the BJP President JP Nadda in the midst of the poll campaign – that the party had now grown independent of the RSS and did not need any hand-holding – illustrated the re-ordering of the relationship between the Modi-led BJP and the RSS. The pushback in many places also came from within the system – the party and the (Sangh) parivar.”

Even as the coalition dynamics will be most on display over the next few days, the reconfiguration of party positions within the BJP will be as important to watch.

Upcoming elections

Those discussions might have to take place rather quickly given the upcoming election calendar in India. Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra – all states where the INDIA bloc have made significant gains this time around – are all expected to go to the polls before the end of the year. And 2025 brings assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar, two states where the Opposition will also fancy their chances, even though the BJP and its allies won them quite convincingly at the Lok Sabha level.

That calendar may also have an impact on the flip side of the questions directed at the BJP: Will the INDIA grouping hold firm?

In the past, the Congress insistence on being in the driving seat of the alliance was often a sticking point preventing further cohesion, especially because of its failure at actually delivering electoral results and the perceived inadequacies of Rahul Gandhi. Its surprisingly strong showing – winning 99 seats – places it on a much firmer footing, and gives Rahul Gandhi the legitimacy that he had long lacked.

Moreover, most of its alliance partners (Samajwadi Party, 37 seats; Trinamool Congress, 29 seats; Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, 22 seats) rely on an anti-BJP politics and so are unlikely to be easily jump ship (though stranger things have happened in Indian politics).

The Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena (nine seats) might be the one that is least reliant on an anti-BJP platform, and it is no wonder that rumours were immediately spread – and then denied – that the party could switch sides. The fact that Maharashtra elections are around the corner, however, may mean less space for such last-minute shifts and the likelihood that the Maha Vikhas Aghadi (Congress, Shiv Sena UBT and Nationalist Congress Party Sharad Pawar, which together won 30 of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats) will contest together.

Still, there are a number of big questions for the INDIA grouping, as political scientist Suhas Palshikar lays out:

“The Opposition will need to understand this outcome with caution. Silent disappointment about economic hardships may have put the BJP on the back foot, but the Opposition would be wrong to declare that the voters have rejected BJP: Neither its arrogance and destruction of institutions nor its politics of cultural assertion have been explicitly rejected. For the Opposition, this outcome poses a difficult challenge. The outward political expressions of hegemony may have been pushed back but the hegemony itself is not undone and the Opposition does not have the ideological wherewithal to counter it. With a truncated strength of the BJP, the politics of isolating it may gain momentum but the critical question is whether the non-BJP parties – in Opposition or in power – have the energy and will to attack the BJP on a front where it is far too strong… The outcome only opens up the possibility of staging a counter. Following its defeat, the BJP will resume its core politics from the next day. Will the non-BJP parties realise that this is not a victory for them but only an opportunity to define their politics sooner than later?”

There’s much more to think through and digest given this outcome – more on how exactly the BJP was stopped, where it has expanded, what the takeaways are for other Opposition parties, the big “democratic backsliding” question, and then what the new government might actually be thinking about doing.

This article first appeared on Rohan Venkat’s India Inside Out. His email address is rohan.venkat@gmail.com.