National elections in India, the world’s largest democracy, are a long and grueling process. This year’s were held in seven regional phases over the course of six weeks, involving more than two thousand registered parties. They culminated May 22 with the landslide reelection of Narendra Modi as prime minister. Many foresaw his victory; few anticipated its sheer magnitude, underscored by significant parliamentary gains by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Challengers had hoped that India’s lackluster economy might weaken Modi’s support, and many believed that the BJP would lose some of the 282 seats (out of 545) it held—instead, it gained twenty-one more. If anything, the surge of Hindu nationalism that brought Modi to power in 2014 seems only to have intensified.
That year, the BJP became the first party since 1984 to win a parliamentary majority without forming a coalition with other parties. This year, it built significantly on its advantage, easily turning back its main challenger, the Indian National Congress (INC) and its standard-bearer, Rahul Gandhi. Severely weakened in 2014, the INC this time ran on a message of inclusivity to counter the Hindu nationalist rhetoric of the BNP, while criticizing Modi’s economic policies (primarily demonetization, the controversial ban on high-value currency) and his ties to the nation’s capitalist elite. It didn’t work: the INC mustered an even poorer performance than expected (it gained just eight seats, amassing a total of fifty-two). But then, its vulnerabilities should have been plain enough. Gandhi is the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom left legacies of corruption as prime ministers, and both of whom were assassinated. He has been dogged by the perception that he is far too inexperienced, and even before the election was mocked with the nickname “Pappu,” a Hindi term used to describe a young, naive boy. The INC—the oldest and most established of India’s parties—has itself become closely associated with corruption, most recently involving sporting-event and telecom scandals. It is also tied to a slew of murder investigations followed by trials yielding no convictions. INC member Shashi Tharoor, who poetically dubbed this year’s election “a battle for the soul of India,” is currently charged with driving his wife to suicide. The party’s appeals to inclusivity clearly rang hollow to an electorate long disillusioned by the INC’s failure to deliver on promises, something that should have already been made clear by its 2014 blowout. This year’s loss now marks the longest period in Indian politics in which the INC has not been in power. And, adding insult to injury, Gandhi lost his seat in Uttar Pradesh.