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India's coalition crisis: Modi's allies pose risk

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
June 10, 2024

Following the 2024 general elections, Narendra Modi's coalition in India faces internal strife as allies demand concessions. The BJP needs to navigate coalition politics to maintain stability.

India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi thanks cabinet ministers (left to right) Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari and Jagat Prakash Nadda
Eleven ministerial posts have gone to Modi's coalition allies, who extracted the positions in exchange for their supportImage: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a third consecutive term in office on Sunday, despite his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) losing its outright majority in India's elections.

Having failed to repeat its previous two landslide victories, the Hindu nationalist party will now need to rely on its partners in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition to govern. Key members of the NDA have endorsed Modi as their leader, but also demanded significant concessions in exchange for their support.

Modi's tough juggling act

"They have been kept in good humor for now but the demands and arm-twisting by coalition partners will increase which is bound to derail the BJP's wish list had they managed to win power on their own," said Vikrant Singh, a political research analyst. "The BJP is living on borrowed support."

Both the Telugu Desam Party, a key regional player in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal, which rules the northern state of Bihar, are considered kingmakers in Modi's coalition and have been rewarded with ministerial positions in the new cabinet.

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The BJP won 240 seats in the general election, a significant dip from its tally of 303 in 2019. A government requires the support of 272 lawmakers in the 543-member lower house of parliament, and the BJP fell 32 seats short of a majority.

What do the coalition partners want?

The Janata Dal has asked the BJP to amend its controversial 'Agniveer' scheme, a military recruitment reform program to create short-term employment and a caste-based census, according to local reports.

The Telugu Desam Party, meanwhile, is likely to demand a special status for Andhra Pradesh which would lead to grants and increased funding for the state.

Gilles Verniers, a political science expert at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, told DW that the stability of the coalition depends more on the ability of the main party to lead in a spirit of conciliation and effective power sharing.

"Much depends on the willingness and ability of the PM to change the way he practiced politics during the first 23 years of his career. Coalition politics cannot function as a one-way street," he said. 

While India is not new to coalition governments, which existed in the 1980s and '90s, analysts and political parties have pointed out that they go against the grain of Modi's style of functioning.

"Coalition politics is always marked by actions that are accommodative. Modi is not a consensus builder or a reconciler like former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee of the BJP was. He is not an administrator, just an ideological vote catcher," Sagarika Ghose, newly appointed deputy leader from the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, told DW.

"The BJP has have not even worked out a common minimum program of governance with its allies," she added.

Will a weakened BJP get things done?

Following India's 2019 national elections, the BJP majority allowed it to take monumental steps during its first 100 days in office, such as revoking the special autonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and criminalizing the Islamic practice of "triple talaq," in which a husband utters the word "divorce" three times in succession to his wife to end a marriage.

During the 2024 election campaign, the BJP promised significant reforms, such as the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which sought to replace religion-based personal laws governing issues such as marriage, divorce and cohabitation with a common set of rules that apply equally to all citizens.

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Another contentious election pledge was that it would adopt the One Nation One Election (ONOE) initiative, which envisages holding elections to India's lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) at the same time as votes for state assemblies, municipalities and village councils (panchayats) — once every five years.

But with the BJP losing its majority, these issues are likely to be relegated to the back burner due to potential resistance from the party's new coalition partners.

"In the present case, conciliation would mean to temporarily renounce transforming India's constitutional order towards a formal majoritarian system," said Verniers.

"The BJP would also have to respond to its partners' desire for a caste census. But otherwise, whether this new coalition will have the same moderating effect as during the first NDA governments of the late 1990s remains to be seen," he added.

Modi under scrutiny from coalition allies

The BJP's big plans on the economic front, such as opening certain sectors to foreign direct investment, manufacturing reforms and foreign policy issues may not meet with much resistance. However, there will be pressures to tailor such reforms to meet regional mandates, especially from alliance partners.

With an impressive showing by the opposition INDIA bloc that bagged 234 seats, Modi's critics will now press their agenda both inside and outside parliament, putting the government under scrutiny over every major legislation push.

"The new coalition government has just too many internal contradictions and ideological differences. It will be just a matter of time before it self-destructs. Also remember, some of the key allies supporting the government have secular credentials and do not share the BJP's Hindu first agenda," said Ram Pratap Singh, political secretary of the Samajwadi Party.

Shabnam Hashmi, a political rights activist, also pointed out that the new coalition is replete with inherent contradictions. She said its members could ill afford to compromise on important issues such as reservation, or affirmative action, for Muslims and caste-based census.

"But it is important to understand that fascist forces do not leave easily," said Hashmi. "The BJP will try and break the other parties and gain numbers over the next year."

Edited by: Keith Walker

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Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11