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An alliance of opposition parties — called INDIA — joins forces to take on Modi

At stake, they say, is the future of India’s multiparty democracy and secular foundations that have seen assaults from Modi’s Hindu nationalist government

Members of newly formed Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance
Members of newly formed Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance by the all opposition parties protest over ethnic violence in Manipur during Monsoon session of Parliament, in New Delhi, India, 24 July 2023.MANISH JAIN (EFE)

India’s popular but polarizing prime minister, Narendra Modi, has a fondness for abbreviations that create buzz around his government schemes and dress down his rivals. Last week, Modi’s political opponents did exactly that.

They announced a new alliance — called INDIA — to unseat Modi and defeat his ruling party’s electoral juggernaut.

The acronym, which stands for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, comprises India’s previously fractured opposition parties that are aiming to keep the Modi government’s increasingly powerful sway at bay. At stake, the alliance says, is the future of India’s multiparty democracy and secular foundations that critics say have seen assaults from Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party.

The opposition alliance is playing on its acronym, saying it will be Modi versus the country in 2024 polls.

Modi will seek reelection to a third consecutive term in a national vote next year at a time when India’s global diplomatic reach is rising. However, his rule at home has coincided with a struggling economy, rising unemployment, attacks by Hindu nationalists against the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.

The 26-party alliance is likely to attack Modi’s BJP on exactly these issues — plus a host of other domestic problems, including a deadly ethnic conflict in the northeastern state of Manipur.

But analysts say its effort to oust Modi will be a Herculean task. He is by far India’s most popular leader, and his party directly controls 10 of the 28 states, is in coalition in four other states and has more than 55% of Parliament’s lower house seats.

“The opposition must pitch this alliance as an alliance for the ordinary people and not just a front against Modi and his party. They must offer a realistic policy narrative and vision for the country that will resonate with the voters,” said political scientist Suhas Palshikar.

The INDIA alliance, led by the Indian National Congress party that once dominated the country’s politics, includes powerful regional parties that are direct rivals to each other in some states. The parties are also beset with ideological differences and personality clashes, and seem undecided on whether to cede space to other groups in regions where they hold sway.

What binds them together on a national front are their concerns that Modi’s BJP has tightened its grip across India’s democratic institutions and the Parliament, where it has passed crucial bills, including on controversial farm laws.

They also complain they have been the targets of raids and investigations by federal agencies controlled by the Modi government. Over a dozen of these instances have lead to defections of opposition leaders to the BJP, which is sometimes followed by dropped charges or pressure otherwise being eased. The BJP denies its involvement in the cases.

The Congress party has been particularly hit. Its former president, Rahul Gandhi, who lost the last two elections to Modi, was disqualified in March from Parliament. Gandhi risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if a court doesn’t overturn his conviction in a defamation case that critics say is politically motivated.

“The main aim is to stand together to safeguard democracy and the constitution,” Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the Congress party, said last week at the end of a two-day conclave of the alliance.

Modi’s party has dismissed the alliance as a grouping of “self-serving, corrupt, dynastic parties.” On the same day the INDIA grouping was announced, BJP held a convention of its own National Democratic Alliance, along with 37 other parties. Two of the NDA’s leading allies are breakaway factions from regional parties that are with the INDIA alliance.

“Modi’s party is known to not share power. That it has shown a more conciliatory side toward allies ahead of elections means it’s worried and would like the support of as many allies as possible,” said Gilles Verniers, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think tank. “But it won’t be an alliance of equals. Modi’s party will still campaign using Modi as a brand. He alone will be on the posters.”

During his nine years in power, Modi has consolidated his party’s reach in north and central India. His party has, however, faced tough challenges in state polls, particularly in the south, where regional parties hold influence.

In recent polls, Congress toppled local BJP governments in state elections in southern Karnataka and northern Himachal Pradesh, denting the ruling party’s image of invincibility. Gandhi’s 136-day march on foot across the length of the country also appears to have shot India’s grand old party back into political prominence.

The election battle is between “Narendra Modi and INDIA, his ideology and INDIA. India always wins all fights,” Gandhi said July 18 at the opposition gathering.

Verniers said the alliance’s name rattled Modi’s party, “but the opposition parties will have to set aside their differences and make some compromises.”

“They have to decide how they will take on the BJP electorally. Their best bet is to file one candidate against the BJP across most of the parliamentary seats in India,” he said.

India has a history of coalition governments, and opposition parties successfully banded together to defeat then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977 elections held after she imposed emergency rule in 1975. However, past efforts by the opposition to unite against the Modi government have failed because of infighting among the parties and ideological differences.

Recent moves by oppositions elsewhere in the world haven’t been as successful as INDIA hopes to be. Fragmented oppositions in Turkey and Hungary also failed to oust their populist leaders.

But India has Westminster-style parliamentary system, and a large opposition bloc has a significant chance to emerge victorious by winning more seats, even if its vote share is less than that of the ruling party. In 2019 general elections, Modi’s BJP-led alliance only won 37% of the votes cast, but was still rewarded with over 303 of 543 seats.

Palshikar, the political scientist, said if the opposition alliance was to succeed it must transform the movement of unity into a “political force that can offer an alternative to the voters.”

“Mere critique of Modi won’t work,” he said.

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