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Modi, Striking a Modest Tone, to Be Sworn In for a Third Term


As a humbled Narendra Modi prepared to take the oath for a third term as India’s prime minister on Sunday, the political air in New Delhi appeared transformed.

The election that ended last week stripped Mr. Modi of his parliamentary majority and forced him to turn to a diverse set of coalition partners to stay in power. Now, these other parties are enjoying something that for years was singularly Mr. Modi’s: relevance and the spotlight.

Their leaders have been swarmed by TV crews while on their way to present demands and policy opinions to Mr. Modi. His opponents, too, have been getting more airtime, with stations cutting live to their news conferences, something almost unheard-of in recent years.

Above all, the change can be seen in Mr. Modi himself. For now, at least, the messianic air is gone. He pitches himself as the modest administrator that voters showed they wanted.

To many, Mr. Modi’s shift in approach can only mean good things for the country’s democracy — a move toward moderation in a hugely diverse nation that was being whipped into a Hindu-first monolith in the image of one man.

The question is whether Mr. Modi can truly become something he has not been during his two-plus decades in elected office: a consensus builder.

“He is a pragmatic politician and, for his own survival and for the survival of his party, he will be a little mellowed,” said Ashutosh, a New Delhi-based analyst who uses only one name and is the author of a book on how Indian politics have changed under Mr. Modi. “But to assume a qualitative change in his style of governance is expecting too much.”

A trademark of Mr. Modi’s rule in recent years has been the use of power levers at his disposal — from pressure of police cases to the lure of a share in power and its perks — to break his opponents and get them to switch to his side. A bruised ruling party may well try such tactics to peel away some lawmakers to his side, analyst say, to buttress his place at the top.

But in the days leading up to the swearing-in, a change in approach was evident. When members of the new coalition packed into the hall of India’s old Parliament building on Friday for deliberations on forming the government, every time a senior ally seated next to him stood up to start his speech, Mr. Modi also stood up. When it was time for Mr. Modi to be garlanded as the coalition’s choice for prime minister, he waited for the leaders of the two main coalition partners to arrive by his side before the congratulatory wreath of purple orchids was placed around his neck.

His hourlong address contained none of his usual references to himself in the third person. His tone was measured. He focused on the coalition’s promise of “good governance” and “the dream of a developed India,” and he acknowledged that things would be different from the past 10 years.

The last time Mr. Modi came to the Parliament complex for a closely watched event, last May when he inaugurated a new, more modern building for the assembly, he made an entrance some observers compared to that of a king: with markings on his forehead as a sign of piety and a scepter in his hand, as shirtless, chanting Hindu monks walked ahead of and behind him.

This time, he went straight to a copy of the Constitution, which declares that India is a secular and socialist democracy, bowing before it and lifting it to his forehead.

For the first time in his more than two decades in elected office, Mr. Modi finds himself in uncharted territory. Until now, as long as he has been at the helm — whether at the state level as the chief minister of Gujarat or at the national level — his Bharatiya Janata Party has always had a majority. Analysts say that history of never having been in the opposition has shaped his heavy-handed approach to politics.

When he left Gujarat, after 13 years, he had established such a firm grip and had so routed the opposition that the state had effectively become one of single-party rule. His first national victory in 2014, with a majority for his B.J.P., ended decades of coalition rule in India, in which no party had been able to capture the 272 seats in Parliament necessary for a majority. In 2019, he was re-elected with an even bigger majority.

Mr. Modi’s enormous power helped swiftly implement what had for decades been his right-wing party’s agenda, including construction of a lavish Hindu temple on a long-disputed site that once held a mosque, and the revocation of the special status long enjoyed by the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

A trademark of his governance was a disregard for parliamentary procedures and for debates on legislation. His unexpected, overnight demonetization in 2016 — which invalidated India’s currency in an effort to crack down on corruption — threw the country into chaos and dealt a blow to a still cash-driven economy. Similarly, rushing to enact laws aimed at overhauling the agriculture market resulted in a year of protests that choked Delhi, forcing Mr. Modi to retreat.

Before the election results came out, Mr. Modi’s party had predicted that his coalition would win 400 seats in India’s 543-seat Parliament. The opposition would be reduced to sitting “in the spectators’ gallery,” Mr. Modi said. Officials in his government had made clear that in his new term he would seek to put in place the only main item remaining on his party’s agenda: legislating a “uniform civil code” across this diverse country to replace varying laws of different religions that currently govern issues like marriage and inheritance. His party leaders spoke of Mr. Modi not only as their leader for the current term but also for the next election in 2029, when he would be 78.

“He has been trying to transform the country,” Sudesh Verma, a B.J.P. official who wrote a book on Mr. Modi’s rise, said in an interview before the election results were announced. I look forward to him working like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who worked into his 90s.”

But under a coalition government, Mr. Modi’s traditional approach will be difficult.

Two of the main coalition parties that helped him achieve the minimum number of Parliament seats to form a government are secular, in contrast to Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology.

N. Chandrababu Naidu, whose party holds 16 seats, has been scathing in the past in his criticism of Mr. Modi’s treatment of the Muslim minority. He has also openly criticized Mr. Modi for using the central investigating agencies to target his opponents and taking “steps to subvert all democratic institutions.”

Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst in Delhi and the author of the 2023 book “How Prime Ministers Decide,” said, “The contentious ideological issues, like the enactment of the uniform civil code, may be put on the back burner if the allies are not comfortable with it.”

Mr. Modi’s popular image is built on two strong pillars. He is a champion of economic development, with an inspiring biography of a rise from a humble caste and relative poverty. He is also a lifelong Hindu nationalist, with decades as a foot soldier in a movement seeking to turn India’s secular and diverse state into an overtly Hindu-first place.

At the peak of his power, the Hindu nationalist aspect increasingly dominated. Analysts say that the recent rebuke by voters might be a lucky break for the nation: prompting Mr. Modi to tap into his development champion side, and to focus on a legacy of economic transformation that could improve the lives of all Indians.

“To run the government, a majority is necessary. But to run the nation, a consensus is necessary,” Mr. Modi said in his speech. “The people want us to deliver better than before.”

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting



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