When everything became about Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, his party and its century-old Hindu-nationalist network were propelled to unimagined heights.

On the back of his singular charisma and political skill, a onetime-fringe religious ideology was pulled to the center of Indian life. Landslide election victories remade India’s politics, once dominated by diverse coalitions representing a nation that had shaped its independence on secular principles.

But there were always risks in wrapping a party’s fortunes so completely in the image of one man, in inundating a country of many religions, castes and cultures with that leader’s name, face and voice. Voters could start to think that everything was about him, not them. They could even revolt.

On Tuesday, Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., fell back to earth. After having promised their biggest election romp yet, they lost more than 60 seats. Mr. Modi will remain in office for a third term, but only with the help of a contentious coalition of parties, some of which are opposed to his core beliefs and want power of their own.

With the result, India’s strained democracy appeared to roar back to life, its beaten-down political opposition reinvigorated. And after a decade in which Mr. Modi’s success in entrenching Hindu supremacy had often felt like the new common sense, India is seeing its leader and itself in a new light, and trying to understand this unexpected turn.

Most fundamentally, the opposition, newly coalesced for what it called a do-or-die moment as Mr. Modi increasingly tilted the playing field, found a way to use the cult of personality around him to its advantage.

Opposition leaders focused on bread-and-butter issues, often at granular levels in particular constituencies. They hammered Mr. Modi over persistent unemployment and stark inequality. But the B.J.P., with Mr. Modi from on high its only spokesman, was often left with just one answer: Trust in “Modi’s guarantee.”

“The ‘Modi’s guarantee’ slogan turned out to be our undoing,” said Ajay Singh Gaur, a B.J.P. worker who had campaigned in the party stronghold of Uttar Pradesh, the northern state where Mr. Modi suffered his biggest blow on Tuesday, losing nearly half of the B.J.P. seats.

“The opposition made that sound like this was not about him having delivered, or trying to deliver,” Mr. Gaur said, “but about him being an arrogant politician.”

Mr. Modi gave his adversaries a lot to work with, even declaring that he may not be “biological” and that he had been sent by God.

He has still emerged better so far than other Indian leaders who deeply centralized power. He remains in control of levers of power that could help him and his party restore their dominance. Indira Gandhi, who had also glorified herself and went so far as to suspend India’s democracy after declaring a national emergency, was voted out at the peak of her powers before returning three years later.

But Mr. Modi’s B.J.P., the world’s largest political party, finds itself in a tough spot after years of centralization and reliance on a government machinery put to the service of one man, analysts say. The huge advantage the party has built in numbers and resources is undercut by a lack of internal consultation and delegation of authority.

That was a key reason for its failure in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, with 240 million people, and surrounding states. Local B.J.P. leaders were disenchanted by a top-down approach toward choosing candidates, as well as what they called a misguided belief that Mr. Modi’s popularity could allow the party to sidestep potent local issues and caste factors.

With Mr. Modi sucking up all the oxygen at the top, other senior leaders of the party have been left to fight for relevance and a voice. His relentless self-promotion has also alienated the leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., the B.J.P.’s right-wing fountainhead.

During election seasons, the R.S.S. activates its vast grass-roots network in support of B.J.P. candidates. While Mr. Modi, a former foot soldier in the organization, has advanced many of its goals, his consolidation of power goes against its regimented nature and its focus on ideology over individual personalities.

One R.S.S. insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, said that Mr. Modi’s exalting of himself had created such resentment inside the group that some of its leaders welcomed any sort of reality check for him, short of his ouster.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, a political analyst who served as an aide to the first B.J.P. prime minister in the 1990s, said Mr. Modi had pushed through unpopular legislation — in particular farm laws that prompted a yearlong protest that choked New Delhi — without consulting with party officials in the affected states. They were left to cope with the ramifications.

“The B.J.P. was never a one-leader party,” Mr. Kulkarni said. “All that changed with Narendra Modi in 2014. He sought to promote a new authoritarian idea of one nation, one leader.”

Hypothesizing that Mr. Modi’s popularity had peaked, the opposition saw an opening to go after a decisive section of votes in the Indian political formula.

For decades before his rise in 2014, neither the B.J.P. nor the Indian National Congress, the country’s two largest parties, could muster majorities on its own. Mr. Modi expanded his party’s backing by consolidating right-wing Hindu voters and drawing in new supporters with his personal story of a humble caste and economic background and a promise to change lives through robust development.

A decade later, in this year’s election, the opposition found traction in painting a very different picture of Mr. Modi — as an autocratic friend of billionaires. Since Mr. Modi had achieved everything he had set out to do, the opposition argued, his pursuit of a resounding majority could only mean that he would seek radical change to the Constitution.

That claim stirred anxiety among India’s Dalits and other underprivileged groups, who see the Constitution as their only protection in a deeply unequal society, guaranteeing them a share of government jobs and seats in higher education as well as elected bodies. The opposition was able to push the message harder when some in Mr. Modi’s right-wing support base, long seen as having an upper-caste bias, called for revoking the quotas.

Caste identity was a major driving factor for voters in many states, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 parliamentary seats. The decline of a Dalit party in the state meant that about 20 percent of the votes were potentially up for grabs.

In Ayodhya, the constituency where Mr. Modi inaugurated a grand Ram temple earlier this year in an effort to consolidate his Hindu support base, the opposition put up a Dalit candidate. He handily defeated the B.J.P.’s two-term incumbent.

In other cases, voters showed their anger over the B.J.P.’s perceived sense of impunity. In Kheri, a constituency where the son of a B.J.P. minister rammed his S.U.V. into a crowd of protesting farmers, killing several, the minister also lost.

Mr. Modi’s election campaign took its most divisive turn in Banswara, in the desert state of Rajasthan, where he called India’s 200 million Muslims “infiltrators” and raised fears that the opposition would give them India’s wealth, including Hindu women’s necklaces.

Banswara’s B.J.P. incumbent was routed in the election. While the loss was most likely attributable to local issues, the national discussion noted that Mr. Modi’s comments had not helped.

In his own constituency of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Modi’s winning margin of nearly half a million votes in 2019 shrank to about 150,000 — a disappointing showing after he had dispatched some of the B.J.P.’s most senior leaders to camp out there to help him achieve an even bigger victory.

Jai Prakash, a tea and samosa seller in Varanasi, said some of the prime minister’s work, particularly his improvement of roads, was popular. But Mr. Modi was losing the plot, Mr. Prakash said, by turning to issues disconnected from people’s day-to-day lives.

“Prices are skyrocketing; so is unemployment,” Mr. Prakash said. “He has done some good. But people cannot worship him endlessly.”



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