India election: Inside Modi and BJP’s plan to win a supermajority

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks alongside Amit Shah, Indian Home Minister and leader of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the day he casts his vote, outside a polling station during the third phase of the general election, in Ahmedabad, India, on May 7, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 07 May 2024
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India election: Inside Modi and BJP’s plan to win a supermajority

  • Hindu nationalist BJP party and its allies are targeting 400 of 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament
  • Only once has a party crossed 400 mark, when Congress won following assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984

BARPETA/THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India: As India votes in a six-week general election, Narendra Modi’s image adorns everything from packs of rice handed out to the poor to large posters in cities and towns.

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is relying on the prime minister’s popularity as it seeks a super-majority in India’s parliament. Its message: Modi has delivered economic growth, infrastructure upgrades and India’s improved standing in the world.

But as the Hindu nationalist party and its allies target 400 of the 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament — up from 352 won in 2019 — they are also employing local tactics in some vital constituencies they hope to wrest from the opposition.

Opinion polls indicate Modi will win a rare third term when voting ends on June 1. But only once in Indian history has a party crossed the 400 mark — when the center-left Congress party romped to victory following the assassination of its leader Indira Gandhi in 1984.

To examine how the right-wing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) aims to achieve that feat — and the obstacles it faces — Reuters spoke to nine NDA officials, three opposition leaders and two political analysts, as well as voters in six opposition-held seats the alliance is targeting.

They identified three of the BJP’s key tactics: enlisting celebrity candidates to unseat veteran opposition lawmakers; making an assault on the opposition’s southern strongholds by appealing to minorities such as Christians; and exploiting redrawn political boundaries that bolster the Hindu electorate in some opposition-controlled areas in the north.

“A combination of strategies, organizational commitment and tactical flexibility will help make inroads in seats never held by the party ever before,” BJP President J. P. Nadda, who oversees the party’s election strategy, told Reuters in April.

Some critics have warned the BJP would use a large majority to push through a more radical agenda in a third term. While the BJP’s manifesto focuses heavily on economic growth, it has also pledged to scrap separate legal codes for religious and tribal groups in areas such as marriage and inheritance.

Many Muslims and tribal groups oppose the plan, which would require a constitutional amendment to be passed by at least two-thirds of parliament.

“Modi wants a landslide majority only to be able to end the debate and deliberation on any policy matter in the parliament,” Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge told Reuters.

Following low turnout in early voting, some BJP campaign officials have in recent days appeared less confident of securing a huge majority, though the party still expects to form the next government.

SOUTHERN STRATEGY

Modi’s party has criticized the dynastic politics that it says afflicts Congress, long dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family. But in Pathanamthitta, a seat in the southern state of Kerala, it is fielding a political scion in Anil Antony — son of a veteran Congress leader.

The constituency, home to a sizeable Christian minority, has been held by Congress since its creation in 2009.

Anil’s father, former defense minister A.K. Antony, supports the incumbent and has denounced his son, a fellow Christian, for representing the Hindu nationalist party.

But Anil has another supporter: Modi, who came to Pathanamthitta in March and praised the BJP candidate for his “fresh vision and leadership.” The prime minister has visited the five states of southern India at least 16 times since December.

Nadda, the BJP president, acknowledged that winning a supermajority would require performing well in the five southern states, which are home to about 20 percent of India’s population but have not traditionally voted for his party.

In 2019, the NDA won just 31 of 130 seats across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, all of which are linguistically diverse and have many Muslim and Christian voters.

Jiji Joseph, general secretary of the BJP’s minority wing in Kerala, said the party has made a concerted push for the 18 percent of voters there who are Christians. The BJP did not win a single seat in Kerala at the last general election.

“The BJP launched active contact with the Church and we started interacting with clergies directly,” he said, adding that the party now has 11,000 active Christian members. “There is a change. Christians now want to believe that BJP stands for them.”

In April, Anil became the first BJP candidate in Kerala to be endorsed by Christian leaders. He told Reuters his selection indicated the party offered opportunities to members from minority groups. He declined to comment on relations with his father.

Jayant Joseph, a Keralan Christian voter, said he backed the BJP because he had read media reports about Muslim men marrying Christian women and converting them to Islam. Most moderate Hindus consider allegations of large-scale forced conversions to be a conspiracy theory.

“Kerala is a secular state,” he said. “But for it to continue to be a secular state, the Muslim population and their conversion strategy must be kept under check.”

A Modi political aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said the NDA expects to win about 50 seats in the south.

K. Anil Kumar, a senior leader of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), said he did not believe BJP would do well in his state, which he said has a strong tradition of secularism.

“The BJP might try to side with the Christians on some issues but they are fundamentally a party of the Hindus and for the Hindus,” he said.

STAR CANDIDATES

In the Mandi constituency of the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP has recruited Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut to break the Congress party’s grip on power. Congress is fielding as its candidate Vikramaditya Singh, whose mother currently represents the constituency. His father was the state’s long-time chief minister.

Ranaut, a political novice who calls herself a “glorious right-wing” personality, has starred in popular movies with nationalistic themes. She is known for her criticism of Bollywood executives who she said favored the relatives of famous actors for opportunities.

The actress is one of five actors running for the BJP this year, up from four in 2019.

No opinion polling on the Mandi race is publicly available.

Anjana Negia, an elementary school teacher who plans to vote for Ranaut, acknowledged that her preferred candidate had no political experience. But she said that she valued a new face and that a Modi-backed candidate would help “bring a fresh wave of development.”

Fielding celebrities and seeking the endorsement of entertainment personalities is relatively new for the BJP, which “long resisted such tactics because of its cadre-based nature” that prized grassroots efforts, said Milan Vaishnav, an expert on South Asian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.

Ranaut declined an interview request. Federal BJP spokesman Shahzad Poonawala said she “has been successful in exposing dynastic culture and nepotism in Bollywood and now she is doing the same in politics.”

Singh, a state minister responsible for urban development, told Reuters that his family’s experiences gave him a better understanding of politics. Charges of nepotism were “shallow,” he said.

REDISTRICTING BENEFITS

The NDA is hoping for gains in the northeastern state of Assam, where it won nine of 14 seats in 2019. Assam’s BJP chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said in March he was confident of winning 13 seats.

The NDA’s confidence is rooted in a 2023 redistricting exercise in the state. India’s non-partisan Election Commission routinely redraws seat boundaries to reflect population changes; it is tasked with ensuring that no political party gains undue advantage from the changes.

But exercises since the last federal election in Assam and far-northern Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only majority Muslim region, diluted the Muslim vote in seats that the NDA is targeting, according to three BJP and four opposition officials.

The Election Commission declined to comment on the two exercises, citing the ongoing election.

In Assam, the NDA has high hopes for Congress-held Barpeta, which alliance candidate Phani Bhushan Choudhury said newly includes dozens of villages and some towns with large Hindu populations.

“Earlier (Barpeta) had a Muslim majority but now it is a Hindu majority,” said Choudhury. “That change has worked in my favor.”

He estimates that there are now 1.2 million Hindu voters in Barpeta, where he is campaigning on development and protecting the rights of what the NDA calls “indigenous Assamese” voters, who are mostly Hindu.

Choudhury’s Congress opponent Deep Bayan said the percentage of Hindus in Barpeta went from 30 percent to 70 percent. “Instead focusing on real issues affecting the people...(the BJP does) the politics of polarization,” he said.

Three of Jammu and Kashmir’s five seats are majority Muslim and held by the opposition. But the NDA hopes to swing one of them, Anantnag-Rajouri, after its voter rolls swelled by more than 50 percent to over 2 million, according to government data.

Many of the new voters are Hindus or from regional tribes — which benefited from new BJP policies awarding them education and employment privileges — according to regional BJP chief Ravinder Raina.

Raina said the BJP would support an NDA partner that it believed could win Anantnag-Rajouri and focus on retaining the two Hindu-majority seats it holds.

The two redistricting exercises presages a broader remapping of constituencies due after the election.

Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment, said the remapping would distribute seats to the BJP-dominated north, which has much higher population growth rates, to the detriment of wealthier south India.


Russian attack kills three, injures four in Ukraine’s eastern region

Updated 4 sec ago
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Russian attack kills three, injures four in Ukraine’s eastern region

The village of Rozkishne, about 25 km from the front line, was targeted by the strike

KYIV: Russia attacked a village in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Thursday, killing three people and injuring four more, including a child, prosecutors said.
The village of Rozkishne, about 25 km from the front line, was targeted by the strike, regional prosecutors said on Telegram.
According to preliminary data, Russian troops used the Smerch system to launch cluster munitions, prosecutors said.
Among the injured was a 14-year-old boy who was hospitalized. Four households, cars, and a gas pipeline were damaged in the attack, prosecutors added.

Cruise ship rescues 68 migrants heading for Spain’s Canaries, five dead

Updated 19 min 58 sec ago
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Cruise ship rescues 68 migrants heading for Spain’s Canaries, five dead

  • Bulk carrier Philipp Oldendorff sighted the boat adrift 440 nautical miles (815 km) south of the island of Tenerife
  • Insignia cruise ship was diverted to the area to pick up the survivors, the Coast Guard said

MADRID: A luxury cruise ship has rescued dozens of migrants who were trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands in a fishing boat that had stalled in rough seas killing five people, Spanish authorities and the cruise operator said on Thursday.
The archipelago has become the main point of entry to Spain for illegal migrants from Africa in recent years, and the route is also the deadliest. Migration rights group Walking Borders said last week that nearly 5,000 migrants died at sea on that route in the first five months of 2024.
Bulk carrier Philipp Oldendorff sighted the boat adrift 440 nautical miles (815 km) south of the island of Tenerife on Wednesday and provided first assistance to the migrants, while the Insignia cruise ship was diverted to the area to pick up the survivors, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The Insignia, which is owned by Miami-based Oceania Cruises, also managed to recover three bodies from the boat, but bad weather prevented the recovery of another two bodies so the ship left a locating device to facilitate the search.
The small luxury cruise ship with a 670-passenger capacity is undertaking a 180— day trip around the world that started in January. It was expected to reach Tenerife at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Friday.
“Safety of life at sea is of paramount importance for all seafarers,” said a spokesperson for Oceania Cruises, which is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.
“We can confirm that the Insignia rescued 68 people from a vessel in distress between Cape Verde and Tenerife, brought them onboard for medical assistance and provided food, drinks, clothing and a safe place to rest,” the spokesperson added.
A Spanish coast guard vessel was en route from the Canary Islands on Thursday to meet the Insignia and then locate the shipwreck.


Illegally brewed liquor kills at least 34 with dozens hospitalized in southern India

Updated 34 min 11 sec ago
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Illegally brewed liquor kills at least 34 with dozens hospitalized in southern India

  • People died after consuming alcohol tainted with methanol in Tamil Nadu, says chief minister
  • District official says number of those in critical condition keeps changing, death toll could rise

NEW DELHI: At least 34 people have died and dozens hospitalized after drinking illegally brewed liquor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, local media reported on Thursday.

The state’s chief minister M K Stalin said the 34 died after consuming liquor that was tainted with methanol, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

The incident occurred in the state’s Kallakurichi district, where more than 100 people are being treated in various hospitals, top district official M S Prasanth said. He added that the number of those who are in critical condition keeps changing, suggesting that the death toll could rise.

Ambulances, doctors and specialists from nearby areas were deployed to the district.

Government officials earlier said several people who were vomiting and had stomach pain were admitted to hospitals Wednesday, triggering a police investigation.

Later that day, Stalin, the chief minister, said in a post on social media platform X that those involved in the crime have been arrested, and action has also been taken against officials who failed to prevent it. “Such crimes that ruin the society will be suppressed with an iron fist,” he added.

Deaths from illegally brewed alcohol are common in India, where the poor cannot afford licensed brands from government-run shops. The illicit liquor, which is often spiked with chemicals such as pesticides to increase potency, has also become a hugely profitable industry as bootleggers pay no taxes and sell enormous quantities of their product to the poor at a cheap rate.

In 2022, more than 30 people died in eastern India’s Bihar state after allegedly drinking tainted liquor sold without authorization. Earlier that same year, at least 28 died from drinking altered liquor in Gujarat state. And in 2020, at least 120 people died after drinking tainted liquor in India’s northern Punjab state.


Romania to send Patriot missile system to Ukraine

Updated 48 min 13 sec ago
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Romania to send Patriot missile system to Ukraine

  • “Council members decided to donate a Patriot system to Ukraine in close coordination with allies,” the Supreme Council of National Defense said
  • NATO countries have been reluctant to send them because they want to protect their own airspace

BUCHAREST: NATO member Romania announced Thursday that it would send a Patriot missile system to Ukraine, which Kyiv has requested to help its fight against Russia’s invasion.
“Considering the significant deterioration of the security situation in Ukraine... council members decided to donate a Patriot system to Ukraine in close coordination with allies,” the Supreme Council of National Defense said in a statement.
The donation was made “on the condition that our country continues negotiations with allies, in particular the US, with a view to obtaining a similar or equivalent system” to protect its own air space, it added.
The country, which borders Ukraine, also needed “a temporary solution to cover the operational vulnerability thus created,” it added.
While Kyiv is calling for more Patriot missile systems, NATO countries have been reluctant to send them because they want to protect their own airspace.
Germany recently announced it would transfer a third Patriot air-defense system to Ukraine, while the United States is expected to send a second battery to Kyiv, according to US media reports.
Romania signed a $4-billion deal for seven Patriot batteries with the US in 2017, the biggest defense acquisition in its history.
Two of the four systems it has received so far are fully operational.
Romania has been providing military help to Kyiv in the war with Russia, but has refused to reveal the scale of the support, citing security concerns.
It has also pledged to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 jets in a regional hub inaugurated in November 2023, although the timeline for that program remains unclear.


Rutte seals NATO top job after lone rival drops out

Updated 20 June 2024
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Rutte seals NATO top job after lone rival drops out

  • Rutte is expected to be formally named by NATO’s 32 nations in the coming days and should take over when current chief Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends on October 1
  • Romania’s security council on Thursday announced Iohannis had formally withdrawn and that the country backed Rutte

BUCHAREST: Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday clinched the race to become the next head of NATO at a pivotal time for the alliance, after sole challenger Romanian President Klaus Iohannis pulled out.
The veteran politician, 57, is expected to be formally named by NATO’s 32 nations in the coming days and should take over when current chief Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends on October 1.
Rutte will come in at a perilous moment for the Western allies as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on and Donald Trump battles to reclaim the presidency in the United States come November.
After staking his claim for the job last year following the collapse of his coalition, staunch Ukraine backer Rutte quickly won the support of heavyweights the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
But he had to use all the diplomatic skills gleaned during almost 14 years in charge of the Netherlands to win over hold-outs led by Turkiye and Hungary.
Rutte overcame Turkish reticence with an April visit to Istanbul, before finally sealing a deal with Hungary’s Viktor Orban at a European Union summit this week.
That left the last sticking point as Iohannis, whose surprise bid had ruffled feathers among allies banking on a smooth appointment for Rutte ahead of a NATO summit in Washington next month.
Romania’s security council on Thursday announced Iohannis had formally withdrawn and that the country backed Rutte.
Rutte will have a lot on his plate when he assumes the reins from Norway’s former premier Stoltenberg, who led the alliance through its most consequential decades since the end of the Cold War.
Just weeks after his four-year term is expected to start, voters in the United States will go to the polls in a crunch vote to chose between incumbent Joe Biden and Trump.
The prospect of the volatile former president returning to the Oval office has rattled allies fearful that he could weaken superpower Washington’s role as Europe’s ultimate security guarantor.
Trump fueled those fears on the campaign trail by saying he would encourage Russia to attack NATO countries not spending enough on their own defense.
Like Stoltenberg, Rutte won plaudits for his careful handling of Trump during his first term in power — when the ex-reality TV star reportedly even mulled pulling the United States out of NATO.
“I think Mark Rutte is a very strong candidate,” Stoltenberg said on a visit to Washington Tuesday. “He has a lot of experience as prime minister. He’s a close friend and colleague.”
While Trump’s return could pose one major challenge — to NATO’s east Rutte will face the far more pressing menace from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s forces are currently on the front foot in Ukraine after more than two years of brutal conflict, and the NATO chief will have a key role marshalling aid from Kyiv’s weary backers.
At the same time Rutte will have to ensure the alliance is ready to defend against any potential future attack from Moscow — if, or more likely when, Putin is able to rebuild his forces.
Part of that will involve corralling European allies to spend more on defense — a key demand from Trump, and other US leaders.
This week NATO announced that 23 out of its 32 member countries had hit the alliance’s target of spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
Dubbed “Teflon Mark” for his ability to remain in power for so long in the Netherlands, Rutte will become the fourth Dutchman to lead NATO since it emerged from the ashes of World War II to confront the Soviet Union.
The bicycling conservative threw his country’s economic weight behind Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion — leading efforts to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv.
While NATO countries along the alliance’s eastern flank had pushed for one of their own to get the NATO job, Rutte’s backers insist he is fully aware of the threat posed by Russia.
Among the most formative events during his time in charge of the Netherlands was the 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, with 196 Dutch among the 298 killed, that was blamed of Moscow-backed fighters.