India opposition alliance fractures as support for Narendra Modi soars


India’s best chance of challenging Narendra Modi is disintegrating months before national elections, as a broad but fragile opposition coalition breaks down over internal rivalries, defections and arrests and intimidation by law enforcement.

The alliance of centre-left and regional parties, which was unveiled last July under the patriotic banner of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, presented itself as a unity front to prevent India’s powerful prime minister and his majoritarian Hindu Bharatiya Janata party from coasting to a third term in power.

But seven months later, talks among INDIA’s more than two dozen parties on seat-sharing — tactical agreements to avoid competing in some constituencies — have made little headway, while Modi has enjoyed a surge of support after he inaugurated a sprawling Hindu temple complex in Ayodhya.

The opposition has also suffered the desertion of two critical figureheads: Mamata Banerjee, head of the All India Trinamool Congress, said last month that her party would independently field candidates, 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 by raids, arrests and corruption investigations that the opposition says are politically motivated.

“The INDIA alliance is collapsing very rapidly,” said Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst and contributing editor with the Indian Express newspaper. “The BJP have a formidable election machinery unlike any in the world, a popular leader who has been 10 years in power, and most importantly, they have a hunger for power.”

Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, speaks with the media outside his residence in Patna, India
Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, was formerly a crucial supporter of the I.N.D.I.A. opposition alliance, but has since switched sides to back the ruling Bharatiya Janata party © Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

India does not publish reliable opinion polls and its electoral commission has not set a date for the election, which is expected over a period of staggered voting in April and May.

But the weakened opposition appears to be heading to a third election loss to 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 were aiming for 400 seats in the upcoming election — a “supermajority” that would give the BJP a historic opportunity to shape Indian politics and life — and that the ruling party alone would target at least 370 seats, up from 290 now.

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

Rahul Gandhi, standard-bearer for the Indian National Congress, the largest opposition group, has drawn large crowds along a cross-India walk, 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, pointing to Modi’s consecration last month of the Ram Mandir temple, built on the site of a mosque that was razed in 1992, which was widely celebrated among India’s majority Hindus.

Opposition figures argue that their travails are due to a repressive government bent on debilitating its political rivals, often with the use of the state’s powerful enforcement agencies.

Several TMS leaders have been summoned by police or subject to raids by the Enforcement Directorate, according to party officials. The Aam Aadmi party, which controls governments in the Delhi’s national capital region and the northern Punjab state, is also in disarray, its leaders jailed over accusations of receiving kickbacks and offering special favours to companies awarded lucrative liquor licences, which they deny. 

Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP’s head, said this week that the party planned to contest all 13 of Punjab’s lower house seats alone, in effect ruling out a poll alliance with his INDIA partners in the state.

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

“Over the past 10 years, the Modi government has unleashed federal agencies, especially the ED, on opposition leaders using a draconian money laundering law,” said Saket Gokhale, an MP with Banerjee’s party. Its activity has “only gotten more active in the last two months”, he added.

In India’s eastern Jharkhand state, former chief minister Hemant Soren, whose party leads the local government in coalition with Congress, was jailed late last month in connection with multiple corruption probes, including allegations of illegally acquiring 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 chief minister or a common person,” said Rudy, the BJP spokesperson.

But veteran observers of Indian politics said that weaponising the legal system by the party in power was a recurring theme. Under Congress governments, its opponents, including Modi, referred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation as the “Congress Bureau of Investigation”. 

“There is a well-documented history of ruling parties, including Congress during its time, of using all levers in their power to tilt the playing field in their favour,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia programme. “It is a tried and true tactic.” 

The opposition face an array of other built-in disadvantages, including a domestic media that largely bows to the BJP and a political fundraising scheme built around “electoral bonds” that favours incumbents.

“A third term for Modi will finish off whatever semblance of democracy is left in India,” said Gokhale. “These elections are existential — not only for opposition parties, but also for Indian democracy itself.”

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