NEW DELHI – After suffering a landslide victory by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, two of India’s leading opposition figures offered their resignations over the weekend.
Though their party leaders refused to let them step down, the gestures reflected the severity of their defeat.
The parties had failed to persuade Indians that the populist Modi had mishandled the economy and marginalized minorities. The “anti-Modi wave” opposition parties claimed would help them ride back to power never arrived.
Instead, the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies won close to two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.
Modi’s decision to campaign on a nationalist, pro-Hindu agenda, while still touting his economic reformist credentials, cemented his dominance over the world’s largest democracy.
He and his cabinet will take office on May 30, President Ram Nath Kovind said on Twitter on Sunday, with Parliament convening within days.
The BJP, which has its roots in Hindu nationalism, made inroads in this election even with non-Hindus and in areas where it had rarely won seats before, such as the eastern state of West Bengal.
In the northeastern state of Tripura, it took its first-ever two seats.
Mamata Banerjee, who leads an opposition party that is dominant in West Bengal and is one of Modi’s most outspoken critics, said over the weekend she was disappointed in voters and ready to give up her seat as the state’s chief minister.
Her party, the All India Trinamool Congress party, didn’t let her.
Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has always led the Indian National Congress, the country’s other major national party, also offered to resign.
A Congress party spokesman, Randeep Surjewala, told a news conference on Saturday that party leaders didn’t accept Gandhi’s resignation.
“We recommended a thorough introspection and requested the Congress president for a complete overhaul and detailed restructuring at every level of the party,” he said.
Congress had hoped to regain some relevance after its worst-ever defeat five years ago. But its seat count rose to only around 50 seats, an embarrassing show for a party that had been almost guaranteed at least 150 seats for decades.
The 48-year-old Gandhi took charge from his mother in 2017. The party earlier had been headed by his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, all of whom served as prime ministers. His father and grandmother were each assassinated.
Gandhi hammered away at the BJP’s record during his campaign, saying it hadn’t delivered on jobs, was failing to take care of farmers and was unleashing a deadly form of Hindu nationalism on the country that was going to hurt minorities and destroy India’s democratic and secular traditions.
The message didn’t win over voters. Gandhi even lost the seat in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh his family has held for decades, though he will remain in Parliament as he won his race in a second district. Indian rules let candidates run in more than one district.
“We know there are a lot of people in this country who agree with the Congress party’s ideologies,” said Gandhi as he admitted defeat as votes were being counted on Thursday. “We want to tell them not to lose heart.”
The opposition appeared to have been outflanked by Modi’s populist turn. He dialed down the pro-business rhetoric that brought him to power for his first term, and instead fanned nationalist pride by bragging about a recent military confrontation with Pakistan.
He touted the country’s new ability to shoot down satellites and boasted about the government’s efforts to protect cows, which Hindus view as sacred.
His first comments after his election victory tried to highlight togetherness and inclusion, and some hope his nationalist pivot was a temporary move to win votes. But others were more concerned than they were before the results and unconvinced by Modi’s early overtures.
“This time the election was not fought on development, it was fought on a very divisive agenda,” said Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “This was a much more openly majoritarian agenda.”