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How Modi will lead with a coalition government, and what voters want


For the first time since Narendra Modi took power a decade ago as India's prime minister, his BJP party will have to share their power in Parliament. After weeks of voting and 640 million votes counted, Modi has become only the second leader in Indian history to serve a third term as prime minister. But the days of his one-party majority are over. So what does this mean for the world's largest democracy? Pratap Bhanu Mehta is a political analyst and joins me now from Kolkata. Welcome.

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA: Great to be on your show.

SUMMERS: So, I mean, everyone's talked about what a surprise these election results have been. And you have been watching the Modi administration closely for a number of years. I just want to start by asking, did you see this coming?

MEHTA: No, actually. I mean, we thought he would win very comfortably. But even more surprisingly, it's the parts of India in which he lost, which is India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which is considered the epicenter of Hindu nationalism, the epicenter of his political power, and he lost half the seats in that state.

SUMMERS: Is there any reason that you think that Modi lost votes in a state that has long been considered really a bastion for the BJP?

MEHTA: So I think there's three things, and I think you can see that play out in different parts of the country. The first is that his economic performance has actually been quite middling. The top 30% of India is doing quite well, but rural wages have been stagnant. It's not catastrophic. I mean, he's created some good welfare schemes on the basis of which he won votes in the last election. But I think the fact that the Indian economy is not generating good productive employment for that part of rural India that wants to transition to urban India or productive employment, you know, that challenge I think is something he'll have to face up to.

I think the second is this time, the coordination between the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi and the Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav - their coordination was much, much better. You did have a much more determined opposition on the ground and more importantly a united opposition.

And the third, as I said, I think there was a certain kind of fatigue with Hindu nationalism. And so I think there is some comfort in the fact that, I think, finally Indian voters decided, look, we can tolerate intolerance only up to a point. After that, it becomes a deal-breaker.

SUMMERS: I mean, Modi is this really larger-than-life figure in India. He has pushed a Hindu nationalist ideology since he's been in office. He's got this massive following. What does the fact that his party, the BJP, did not get the landslide victory in Parliament that they predicted - what does that tell you about what Indian voters want now?

MEHTA: Yeah, I think it tells you that Indian voters still care about democracy and still care about political competition. I think that's the most amazing news to come out of this election. I don't think the vote was a repudiation of his achievements. But I think voters were telling him that, look, these have an expiry date. You have done all of this. You have to tell us what is next.

SUMMERS: And I mean, we should point out that it's not just India, South Africa's ANC party just lost its 30-year majority in election last week. And also, last year, elections in Poland as well as Spain resulted in coalition governments. Do you see this as a global trend? And if it is, what do you think that trend is telling us?

MEHTA: I mean, I think there is a global trend here in the sense that, look, fundamentally, I think all our societies, at least in the major democracies - perhaps with the partial exception of Poland in the cases that you cite - they're struggling with this fundamental challenge, which is - how do you actually create a form of economic governance which makes all people feel included? The United States is struggling with it where the middle class feels that, you know, wages have been stagnant for quite a while. The working class feels excluded. I think in India, the lack of productive jobs - in South Africa, unemployment is actually very high.

And I think what the political class has been able to do for a term or two terms is you can do some public spending, you can create some new welfare schemes. But fundamentally they have not quite been able to tackle the structural problems of the economy. And what that means is that on a seven to 10-year cycle, almost all the incumbent governments become vulnerable as those fundamental economic issues resurface.

SUMMERS: Pratap Bhanu Mehta is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a professor at Princeton University. Thank you so much.

MEHTA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMIENE SONG, "MARKING MY TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.