TOPSHOT - Indian supporters and party workers of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and flash victory signs as they celebrate on the vote results day for India's general election in Bangalore on May 23, 2019. - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked on course on May 23 for a major victory in the world's biggest election, with early trends suggesting his Hindu nationalist party will win a bigger majority even than 2014. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Indian supporters and party workers of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and flash victory signs as they celebrate on the vote results day for India's general election in Bangalore on May 23, 2019. - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked on course on May 23 for a major victory in the world's biggest election, with early trends suggesting his Hindu nationalist party will win a bigger majority even than 2014. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:19
Narendra Modi declares victory in India elections
CNN
Now playing
03:08
Families of detained protesters in Cuba speak out
People drink on the dance floor shortly after the reopening, at The Piano Works in Farringdon, in London, Monday, July 19, 2021. Thousands of young people plan to dance the night away at 'Freedom Day' parties after midnight Sunday, when almost all coronavirus restrictions in England are to be scrapped. Nightclubs, which have been shuttered since March 2020, can finally reopen. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Alberto Pezzali/AP
People drink on the dance floor shortly after the reopening, at The Piano Works in Farringdon, in London, Monday, July 19, 2021. Thousands of young people plan to dance the night away at 'Freedom Day' parties after midnight Sunday, when almost all coronavirus restrictions in England are to be scrapped. Nightclubs, which have been shuttered since March 2020, can finally reopen. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Now playing
02:17
UK is reopening and scientists are confused to what's happening
lebanon wedeman beirut
AFPTV
lebanon wedeman beirut
Now playing
02:58
What's happening in Tunisia and why it matters
Gold medalist Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry stands on the podium for the women's 200m backstroke swimming final medal ceremony at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 16, 2008.    Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe set a new world record in the women's 200 metres backstroke with a time of two minutes 05.24 seconds in the final at the Beijing Olympics. US swimmer Margaret Hoelzer placed second and Japanese swimmer Reiko Nakamura placed third.  AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Gold medalist Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry stands on the podium for the women's 200m backstroke swimming final medal ceremony at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 16, 2008. Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe set a new world record in the women's 200 metres backstroke with a time of two minutes 05.24 seconds in the final at the Beijing Olympics. US swimmer Margaret Hoelzer placed second and Japanese swimmer Reiko Nakamura placed third. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:47
'You have to train your brain as much as any muscle'
i-Cable
Now playing
03:18
First person charged under Hong Kong national security law
A police convoy drives past a wall painted with the president's image down the alley of the entrance to the residence of the president in Port-au-Prince on July 15, 2021, in the wake of Haitian President Jovenel Moise's assassination on July 7, 2021. - The assassination of Jovenel Moise by armed mercenaries was planned in the neighboring Dominican Republic, say Haitian police, who announced the detention of the slain president's chief bodyguard and three other members of his security detail. (Photo by Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images)
VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
A police convoy drives past a wall painted with the president's image down the alley of the entrance to the residence of the president in Port-au-Prince on July 15, 2021, in the wake of Haitian President Jovenel Moise's assassination on July 7, 2021. - The assassination of Jovenel Moise by armed mercenaries was planned in the neighboring Dominican Republic, say Haitian police, who announced the detention of the slain president's chief bodyguard and three other members of his security detail. (Photo by Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
04:52
Exclusive: Signs of coverup in Haiti assassination investigation
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, on July 26, 2021.  Beijing has indicated that the U.S. is treating China as an "imaginary enemy" after the meeting between top diplomats Sherman and Wang.
Sherman Meets With Wang in Tianjin, China, Beijing - 26 Jul 2021. U.S. State Department/UPI/Shutterstock
U.S. State Department/UPI/Shutterstock
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, on July 26, 2021. Beijing has indicated that the U.S. is treating China as an "imaginary enemy" after the meeting between top diplomats Sherman and Wang. Sherman Meets With Wang in Tianjin, China, Beijing - 26 Jul 2021. U.S. State Department/UPI/Shutterstock
Now playing
01:09
Chinese official: The US portrays China as an imaginary enemy
ANI via Reuters
Now playing
02:09
Villagers left devastated by torrential rains in India
Now playing
03:38
Pakistani Taliban leader reacts to Afghan gains after US withdrawal
Australia vietnam indonesia covid holmes pkg intl hnk vpx_00000503.png
Australia vietnam indonesia covid holmes pkg intl hnk vpx_00000503.png
Now playing
02:27
Australian PM calls anti-lockdown protesters 'reckless' and 'self-defeating'
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: General view inside the stadium as fireworks go off while Naomi Osaka of Team Japan lights the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: General view inside the stadium as fireworks go off while Naomi Osaka of Team Japan lights the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:22
Tokyo 2020 Games officially underway after yearlong delay
DESKTOP afghan pilot 2
CNN
DESKTOP afghan pilot 2
Now playing
02:00
'They would just try to break me': First female Afghan Air Force pilot on adversity in the military
CNN
Now playing
02:24
See Tokyo 2020 Olympics from above
Biden town hall vpx
CNN
Biden town hall vpx
Now playing
01:45
Biden reveals what world leaders are asking him about America
siberia russia wildfires climate crisis Brunhuber ctw pkg intl ldn vpx_00003508.png
siberia russia wildfires climate crisis Brunhuber ctw pkg intl ldn vpx_00003508.png
Now playing
02:36
Huge swaths of Siberia are on fire. See how firefighters are responding
New Delhi CNN —  

In purely electoral terms, it is an extraordinary achievement. Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have won a clear victory in India’s national elections.

Final results are still outstanding, but Modi’s BJP have currently won 297 seats, putting them well beyond the 272 threshold needed to form a government. Modi has been given a second term mandate that’s larger than the one he secured in 2014, when he first became Prime Minister.

Back then, the result was seen by many Indian observers as a one-off: An energetic BJP campaign, a mix of dog-whistles to mobilize the party’s hardline Hindu base and economic promises for aspirational Indians, earned Modi the biggest parliamentary majority for any single Indian party in thirty years.

At the time, India was ruled by a coalition government led by the Congress, the grand old party of India’s independence movement. Long seen as the natural party of government, it limped into parliament with just 44 seats.

In the days and years after that contest, many polling experts, political commentators and others who talk about these things outside elections often argued that, even if Modi won a second term, he would have to rely on a reduced parliamentary majority. Surely, they reasoned, the laws of gravity would operate on the 2014 tally.

Not so much, it’s now clear.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flashes the victory sign next to president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Amit Shah as they celebrate their victory in India's general elections.
MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flashes the victory sign next to president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Amit Shah as they celebrate their victory in India's general elections.

Defying gravity

Five years ago, Modi presented himself as an economic reformer who would finally deal with the issues that for years and years India watchers had been saying were holding the country back: Red tape, rampant corruption, joblessness among India’s young people, shoddy infrastructure. To borrow from another populist leader, he promised a complete overhaul to make India great again.

And although economic growth has remained relatively robust, evidence that he hasn’t succeeded has been stacking up: Joblessness remains a major problem, there are signs of growing economic distress in the still important farm sector.

Modi did deliver a national goods and services tax, something that economists have long been saying would help spur growth in the long term, but the way it was implemented has sparked criticism from many experts; it’s complex design, they say, has hurt many businesses instead of making things easier for them.

In 2016, meanwhile, Modi surprised Indians by saying he was withdrawing certain high denomination currency notes from circulation. The government’s reasoning for the measure kept changing: One day, it was a measure to fight untaxed wealth, the next, to force Indians to abandon cash in favor of digital alternatives. What was clear was the economic fallout: Reports from around the country showed how the measure had come as a blow to an array of cash-dependent industries, triggering layoffs, and hurt the poorest Indians.

Yet, he won—and he won big.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate with a cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their party office in Gauhati.
Anupam Nath/AP
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate with a cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their party office in Gauhati.

Modi, Modi, Modi

How? Looking back, it was striking, as the campaign unfolded, to see how the conversation – both on the side of the BJP and even on the opposition side – revolved around Modi, Modi, Modi… and Modi.

The BJP presented him as a muscular Hindu watchman who would defend the country, a narrative boosted by a military confrontation with Muslim majority Pakistan just weeks before campaigning kicked off.

The Hindu nationalist card was played more openly in 2019 than in 2014, making many liberals and Indians who belong to minority religions nervous. Link to previous analysis about India being more divided than ever.

The Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi attempted to turn this on its head, repeatedly saying the watchman was in fact a thief by making reference to a controversy over a recent defense deal. It clearly didn’t work.

Local issues, such as economic distress in parts of rural India or the still serious joblessness crisis, don’t appear to have mattered.

Instead, voters backed Modi, despite the issues. As we wait for analysts to slice and dice the numbers and tell us more about what just happened, one thing seems clear: Modi appears to have played in and won a parliamentary contest—where voters elect individual MPs, responding, in theory, to local issues—by turning it into a referendum with just one question on the ballot: do you support Modi?