DHAMPUR, India — Long before India’s shock election results released this week eroded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political mandate, the seeds of discontent were planted in the poor, zigzagging alleys housing Indians at the foot of society.

Months ago, upper-caste members of Modi’s party boasted they would gain so much political power that they would amend India’s constitution to remove affirmative action, said villager Yogendra Kumar. There was another problem, Yogendra’s friend Nikul Kumar added: Modi never delivered jobs to the poor or kept inflation in check.

Yogendra and Nikul Kumar are Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, and part of the crucial voter bloc that delivered the biggest surprise this week: low-caste Hindus in the Hindi-speaking heartland who unexpectedly rebelled against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. While the BJP won the most parliamentary seats, it fell well short of securing the majority needed to form a government.

In a bruising campaign over the past seven weeks, Modi often appealed to religion, portraying himself as a champion of Hindus anointed by God and denouncing Muslims as “infiltrators.” But ultimately, according to political analysts, the election was decided along the fault lines of caste and class.

In the key state of Uttar Pradesh, where Modi had inaugurated a massive temple in January in an effort to consolidate the Hindu vote, many low-caste Hindus voted in a similar fashion as Muslims, another group that been dissatisfied with Modi’s rule. As a result, the state that played an outsize role propelling Modi to victory in 2014 and 2019 delivered most of its 80 seats to the opposition.


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“Those who were betting on a vote along Hindu-Muslim lines have been shown that society realizes they are trying to separate us just so they can be in power,” Nikul Kumar, a tile maker, said in his modest living room. “The biggest weakness of BJP is it’s all about religion. If they do actual work for our education, then we can move up.”

Over all, Modi’s BJP won nearly the same proportion of votes as it did in its landslide victory five years ago, but the party suffered steep losses in the Hindi-speaking states, like Uttar Pradesh, and its gains elsewhere in the country did not compensate for the seats lost. The opposition parties capitalized by coordinating much better than in the past, selecting candidates so that they did not split the vote. As a result, Modi failed to win a governing majority for the first time in his 23-year political career.

As of early Wednesday, it was not immediately clear what the future held for Modi or what the next government will look like. Because the BJP failed to win a majority in the Lok Sabha lower house, Modi will potentially have to offer concessions to two unpredictable allies in the National Democratic Alliance who lead smaller parties, Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu, to form a governing coalition.

Political analysts say Modi’s electoral setback partly reflected grievances rooted in the widening economic gulfs and challenges facing India, particularly since the pandemic. Entering the election, unemployment was running high at 8.1 percent, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. In March, a group of researchers, including the French economist Thomas Piketty, found that wealth inequality in India had worsened under Modi and reached a record level, surpassing that during British colonial times.

Throughout the campaign, Modi’s rivals seized on those grievances. The opposition Congress party released an election manifesto called a “Letter of Justice,” appealing to the poor, women, and jobless youth. The Congress’s coalition partner, the Samajwadi party, focused on nominating candidates from lower caste communities and tried to woo disadvantaged members of upper castes. The opposition leaders slammed Modi for his failure to deliver jobs and accused him of allying with India’s two leading billionaires, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, instead of propping up small businesses and ordinary workers.

Opposition leaders also warned that if the Hindu-nationalist BJP and its allies won a landslide of 400 parliamentary seats, as Modi predicted, the government might amend the Indian constitution to eliminate guaranteed affirmative action for Dalits and revoke the secular nature of the Indian republic. Both prospects have long been mooted by some BJP officials. At every rally, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, waved a pocket-size copy of the Indian Constitution.

Modi, for his part, repeatedly warned poor Hindu voters that the Congress would redistribute wealth by taking away their buffaloes and wedding jewelry and giving them to Muslims. He declared that instead of supporting him, India’s two top billionaires were in fact providing the corrupt opposition candidates with vans stuffed with ill-gotten cash.

Modi’s aides said he gave 80 interviews to television and print media through the campaign. Almost all were friendly outlets and almost none veered into uncomfortable questions about unemployment or inflation. But once, during a May 16 television interview, Modi faced a rare question about inequality reaching historic extremes and reacted sharply. “What should I do?” he said. “So should everybody be poor?”

In the end, the economic considerations outweighed religious loyalties, analysts say. In Uttar Pradesh — which is 20 percent Dalits, 40 percent other lower-caste voters and 20 percent Muslims — the number of parliamentary seats won by the BJP fell from 62 in 2019 to 33 this year.

“The BJP tried to win by religious polarization, but they forgot the other reasons that used to make them popular in previous elections,” said Gilles Verniers, a visiting professor at Amherst College. “There was a current of discontent about cost of living, joblessness that was not addressed or willfully ignored. There was an exhaustion of religious nationalism, and all of a sudden, economic distress matters.”

One of the unexpected results in Uttar Pradesh came in Ayodhya, the site of the Ram Temple, built on the ruins of a historic mosque. Modi consecrated the temple in an extravagant religious ceremony in January and made its construction a key part of his pitch to Hindu voters. The BJP lost the local seat to Awadhesh Prasad, a Dalit candidate who had promised to resettle local residents and business owners who were to make way for the temple’s construction.

Another voting district that went to the opposition was the one that included Yogendra and Nikul’s Dhampur village. On Tuesday, the district elected Chandrashekar Azad, a flamboyant Dalit leader who often wears aviator sunglasses, sports a trademark curled mustache and refers to himself as Ravan — a figure in Hindu mythology who is the enemy Lord Ram, the god revered by Hindu nationalists.

A day after his election win, Azad took a break from distributing balls of sugary flour to well-wishers who had lined up outside his simple bedroom to say that the BJP was brought down by its hubris. He explained that his campaign team and the rest of the opposition convinced many local voters about the danger of the BJP reaching 400 seats and changing the Indian constitution, which was written by the revered Dalit lawyer, B.R. Ambedkar.

“We told people to vote to save the constitution,” Azad said. “In Uttar Pradesh, lower-caste society decided to stop the BJP.”

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