India's Modi in talks with allies after close election win

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi flashes victory sign as he arrives at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to celebrate the party’s win in country’s general election, in New Delhi on 4 June, 2024AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party was in talks with key allies to form a government Wednesday, after failing to secure an outright majority for the first time since sweeping to power a decade ago.

Party leaders across the political spectrum were attempting to shore up their positions and bolster alliances, a day after the surprise setback to Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The release of the results on Tuesday upended conventional wisdom throughout the six-week election that Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda would power him to a landslide win, and he faces the prospect of a far tougher-than-expected third term.

"It will force Modi to take the point of view of others -- we shall see more democracy and a healthy parliament," said Nilanajan Mukhopadhyay, who has written a biography of Modi.

"He will have to be a leader that he has never been; we will have to see a new Modi."

Modi's BJP lost the outright parliamentary majority it had enjoyed during its first two terms but is still expected to be able to form a government, leading an alliance of smaller parties.

"India cuts Modi down," The Telegraph daily, from the opposition stronghold state of West Bengal, splashed across its front page.

"Coalition Karma," the headline of India's Mint newspaper read.

'Strong opposition'

While a government has yet to be formed, rival China congratulated Modi on Wednesday and said it was "ready to work" with its neighbour, while Japan also applauded the "ruling coalition" on its win.

Modi, 73, insisted on Tuesday night that the election results were a victory that ensured he would be able to continue his agenda and his Hindu faithful celebrated across the country.

"Our third term will be one of big decisions and the country will write a new chapter of development," Modi told a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital New Delhi late Tuesday. "This is Modi's guarantee."

BJP supporters on the streets of New Delhi pointed out their party had secured the most seats and toasted that win.

"We are so happy about the results," said 36-year-old office worker Archana Sharma.

She said she was "looking forward to supporting Modi and BJP" in the future, too.

Govind Singh, 38, an optometrist, said "having a strong opposition is necessary" but added that it was better to have a government with a parliamentary majority.

The BJP secured 240 seats in parliament, well down on the 303 from five years ago and 32 seats short of a majority.

The main opposition Congress party won 99 seats in a remarkable turnaround, almost doubling its 2019 tally of 52.

"The country has said to Narendra Modi 'We don't want you'," opposition leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters after the results were released, saying people had given "the right response".

Two key parties with a total of 28 seats have said they back Modi's alliance, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Janata Dal United (JDU).

Commentators and exit polls had projected an overwhelming victory for Modi, who critics have accused of leading the jailing of opposition figures and trampling on the rights of India's 200-million-plus Muslim community.

In a personal sting, Modi was re-elected to his constituency representing the Hindu holy city of Varanasi with a far lower margin of 152,300 votes. That compared with nearly half a million votes five years ago.

'A new Modi'

Now dependent on coalition partners, the BJP must seek consensus to push its policies through parliament.

"The lurking possibility of them using their leverage, encouraged further by feelers from Congress and others in the opposition, is going to be a constant worry for BJP," the Times of India reported.

Modi now has to "suffer the fate of working with an alliance partner... who could pull the plug at any time", said Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of The Caravan magazine in New Delhi.

Stocks slumped Tuesday on speculation the reduced majority would hamper the BJP's ability to push through reforms.

Modi's opponents fought against a well-oiled and well-funded BJP campaign machine, and what they say are politically motivated criminal cases aimed at hobbling challengers.

Many of India's Muslim minority are increasingly uneasy about their futures and their community's place in the constitutionally secular country.

Modi himself made several strident comments about Muslims on the campaign trail, referring to them as "infiltrators".