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India reminds the world it is more than Modi

“India cuts Modi down,” blared the headline in my hometown Kolkata’s main newspaper, the Telegraph, after our all-powerful prime minister unexpectedly lost his majority on Tuesday. The opposition alliance, cunningly abbreviated INDIA, advanced to within 40 seats of claiming power in New Delhi. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will need continued support from several restive regional parties in order to govern.

In Kolkata, as in much of India, there was an audible sigh of relief: Voters seem to have forced an end to a decade of single-minded and remote decision-making. Others will, naturally, be dismayed.

When Modi was elected with a no less startling majority in 2014, the victory was seen both inside and outside the country as a welcome shift after years of coalition governments hamstrung by the need for extensive consensus-building. India would finally change, the narrative went, if one man had the power to make decisions.

For investors in the rest of the world — and for many friendly governments — Modi appeared to be that man: a leader who could deliver a complicated country.

Freed of the need to consult with a cabinet of equals or alliance partners with a real voice, he could impose policies that would have taken other governments years to pass. India’s international partners could trust that they only needed to listen to one voice, a prime minister who could take bold decisions and whose promises could be counted upon.

Anyone surprised at the crumbling of this narrative has not been paying attention. Mountains of contrary evidence had rendered it unsupportable years ago. And, indeed, it was always an inaccurate view, born of wishful thinking and a desire to minimize or ignore India’s complexities.

For one thing, with all the power and political capital at his disposal, Modi never really knew what to deliver for India. He had a deserved reputation as a superb administrator. But he had little interest in actual policymaking; nor, in most fields, did he have the ideological instincts that could substitute for policy nous. Where he did hold such deeply felt beliefs — for example, on the need to control the deficit — he notched his most notable achievements.

Even as Modi’s past two administrations set myriad economic and developmental targets, they proved far less competent at devising polices to achieve those targets. Those that they came up with were generated by faceless bureaucrats and rammed through without much discussion. They would indubitably have benefited from the rigors of a more consultative process.

India should see a different prime minister now — one who listens more and accepts his limits. That’s admittedly hard to picture: Throughout his political career, Modi has never had to compromise in this manner.

And I wonder what enforced humility will do to his political appeal, much of which had been based on him being a consistent winner. His party’s losses in this election were not, objectively, overwhelming. But they were shattering, nonetheless, because so many tacitly accepted the prime minister’s oft-repeated message that he was anointed by God as a personification of India and its aspirations.

The common global view of Modi as the single decision-maker for a vast country was wrong also because it didn’t fit India’s realities. If political approval for change is not carefully hashed out in cabinet or in Parliament, then it can all too easily be vetoed on the streets. Time after time, bills that were drafted in secret and passed effortlessly into law shortly after being made public had to be withdrawn when protests erupted across the country.

Yes, in the alliance era, India struggled to pass any laws at all. But governments could, with some effort, build and maintain a bipartisan consensus for economic reform — and it was in those decades from 1991 to 2014 that India emerged as an engine of global growth.

No one should expect a single person to deliver India. This is a fifth of humanity, a complex and variegated polity which just happens to be one country with a single prime minister.

Investors will now have to remember the importance of state governments and regional actors. For years, one has heard puzzlement that something promised by New Delhi was not being transformed into action by a state or local government. The illusion that New Delhi is an imperial capital where everything can be ordered into existence has hopefully been shattered.

India’s international partners will have to make their own effort to understand and win over the country’s many conflicting constituencies. Modi has had progressive instincts on several global challenges, from restoring multilateral authority to carbon mitigation, that aren’t always widely shared.

On issues from climate change to agricultural trade, the world will have to work harder to persuade India. As Modi himself has just discovered, there are no shortcuts to the assent of a fifth of humanity.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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