India’s opposition alliance fractures as support for Narendra Modi soars

India’s best chance to challenge Narendra Modi is disintegrating months before national elections, as a large but fragile opposition coalition collapses amid internal rivalries, defections, arrests and intimidation by law enforcement.

The alliance of center-left and regional parties, inaugurated last July under the patriotic banner of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, presented itself as a united front to prevent India’s powerful prime minister and his majority Hindu Bharatiya Party Janata reaching his third term in power.

But seven months later, talks between more than two dozen INDIA parties on seat-sharing – tactical arrangements to avoid competition in some constituencies – have made little progress, while Modi has enjoyed a groundswell of support after ushering in a vast Hindu temple complex in Ayodhya. .

The opposition has also suffered the departure of two critical figures: Mamata Banerjee, head of the All India Trinamool Congress, said last month that her party would field candidates independently, and Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar , India’s third most populous state, jumped ship to ally with the BJP.

Elsewhere, officials have been targeted in raids, arrests and corruption investigations that the opposition says are politically motivated.

“The alliance with INDIA is collapsing very quickly,” said Neerja Chowdhury, political analyst and contributing editor of the Indian Express newspaper. “The BJP has a formidable electoral machine unlike any other in the world, a popular leader who has been in power for 10 years and, more importantly, is hungry for power.”

Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, speaks to the media outside his residence in Patna, India
Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s chief minister, was once a crucial supporter of INDIA’s opposition alliance but has since switched sides to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. © Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

India does not publish reliable opinion polls and its election commission has not set a date for the elections, scheduled for a period of staggered voting between April and May.

But the weakened opposition appears headed for a third election defeat against an emboldened BJP and its powerful leader, who has built a mass following on religious nationalism.

Modi last week told parliament that his party and its allies are aiming for 400 seats in the next election – a “supermajority” that would give the BJP a historic opportunity to shape Indian politics and life – and that the ruling party alone it would aim for at least 370 places, up from the current 290.

“The alliance with INDIA is over, it is cancelled, it is finished,” Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP’s national spokesperson, told the Financial Times.

Rahul Gandhi, standard-bearer of the Indian National Congress, the largest opposition group, drew large crowds on a march across India, his second, suggesting the opposition is not yet a spent force.

But most analysts share the ruling party’s prognosis. The BJP is “coming back to power,” Chowdhury said, referring to Modi’s consecration last month of the Ram Mandir temple, built on the site of a mosque razed in 1992 and widely celebrated by India’s Hindu majority.

Opposition figures say their travails are due to a repressive government intent on debilitating its political rivals, often with the use of powerful state oversight agencies.

According to party officials, several TMS leaders were summoned by the police or subjected to raids by the Law Enforcement Directorate. The Aam Aadmi Party, which controls governments in the national capital region of Delhi and the northern state of Punjab, is also in disarray, its leaders jailed on charges of receiving bribes and offering special favors to companies that have obtained lucrative liquor licenses, which they deny.

Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP chief, said this week that the party plans to contest all 13 seats in Punjab’s lower house alone, effectively ruling out an electoral alliance with its INDIA partners in the state.

Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi greets supporters during his walk across India to drum up support for the opposition
Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi greets supporters during his walk across India to drum up support for the opposition © ANI/Hindustan Times/Sipa USA/Reuters

“For the last 10 years, the Modi government has unleashed federal agencies, especially the ED, against opposition leaders using a draconian money laundering law,” said Saket Gokhale, a lawmaker from Banerjee’s party. His business “has only gotten more active in the last couple of months,” he added.

In India’s eastern state of Jharkhand, former prime minister Hemant Soren, whose party leads the local government in coalition with Congress, was jailed late last month in connection with multiple corruption investigations, including allegations of illegal acquisition of land while in office.

Modi’s party denies using law enforcement to target the opposition, maintaining the agencies’ independence. “Corruption is corruption, whether it is a prime minister or an ordinary person,” said Rudy, the BJP spokesperson.

But veteran observers of Indian politics say the ruling party’s weaponization of the legal system is a recurring theme. Under Congress governments, their opponents, including Modi, referred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation as the “Congress Bureau of Investigation”.

“There is a well-documented history of parties in power, including Congress in its time, using every lever in their power to tilt the playing field in their favor,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program from the Carnegie Endowment. “It’s a tried and true tactic.”

The opposition faces a number of other inherent disadvantages, including a national media that leans largely to the BJP and a political fundraising scheme built around “electoral constraints” that favors incumbents.

“A third term for Modi will end any semblance of democracy left in India,” Gokhale said. “These elections are existential, not only for the opposition parties, but also for Indian democracy itself.”

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