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India’s Modi Aims for Supermajority in Upcoming General Election

Published: May 13, 2024
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote, outside a polling station during the third phase of the general election, in Ahmedabad, India, May 7, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

As India goes through its six-week long trail to the general election, popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image adorns large posters in cities and towns, while his party’s campaign staff work on the streets distributing boxes and bags of food to the country’s poor.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking to obtain a super-majority in India’s parliament. The platform is simple: Modi has delivered economic growth, infrastructure upgrades and improved India’s international posture.

The BJP, which is considered a Hindu nationalist party, and its allies are targeting 400 of the 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. In 2019, they won a total of 352 seats. The party is also employing local tactics in some vital constituencies,  in hope to wrest them from the opposition. 

Voting will end on June 1. Only once in Indian history has a party crossed the 400 seats mark, when the center-left Congress party came out victorious from the elections following the assassination of its leader Indira Gandhi in 1984. Opinion polls indicate Modi will win a rare third term in office.

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. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is a conservative political alliance formed by several parties and led by the BJP, which is the biggest of them.

They identified three of the BJP’s key tactics: using celebrity candidates to unseat veteran opposition lawmakers; challenge the opposition’s southern strongholds by appealing to minorities such as Christians; and exploiting the topic of redrawn political boundaries with the Hindu electorate in  areas controlled by the opposition. 

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

The BJP’s manifesto focuses heavily on economic growth and it has also pledged to scrap separate legal codes for religious and tribal groups in areas such as marriage and inheritance, which some critics view as part of a radical agenda.

The plan would require a constitutional amendment to be agreed by at least two-thirds of parliament, and is opposed by many muslims and tribal groups.

“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. 

Though the party still expects to form the next government, hopes of securing a huge majority appeared to diminish, following the low turnout in early voting. 

FILE PHOTO: A supporter waves the flag of the Congress party before the arrival of Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India?s main opposition Congress party, in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 3, 2024. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

Southern strategy

According to Modi’s party,  the Congress has long been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family, a situation they described as dynastic politics. But in Pathanamthitta, in the southern state of Kerala, they are fielding Anil Antony, son of a veteran Congress leader.

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

Anil’s father is  A.K. Antony, a former defense minister who supports  the incumbent Prime minister and his son, for representing the Hindu nationalist party. 

Modi Went  to Pathanamthitta in March and also praised Anil for his “fresh vision and leadership”. Since December the prime minister has visited the five states of southern India at least 16 times.

About 20 percent of India’s population is located in the five southern states, therefore performing well in those areas is essential to gain a supermajority. The BJP president Nadda acknowledged that traditionally those states did not vote for his party. 

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

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

“The BJP launched active contact with the Church and we started interacting with clergy 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, Christian leaders endorsed Anil . It was the first time for a BJP candidate in Kerala, and 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 is a Keralan Christian voter. He said he had read media reports about Muslim men marrying Christian women and converting them to Islam, and that is the reason he decided to support the BJP. 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 said the NDA expects to secure about 50 seats in the south of the country.  The person remained anonymous,  because he said he was not authorized to talk to the media.

K. Anil Kumar is a senior leader of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). He said his state had a strong tradition of secularism, therefore did not believe Modi’s party would perform well there. 

“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 added.

FILE PHOTO: A supporter wears a mask depicting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally of Amit Shah, Indian Home Minister and a leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Ahmedabad, India, April 30, 2024. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo

Popular candidates

The BJP has recruited Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, to run for Mandi constituency of the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Congress is fielding its candidate Vikramaditya Singh, whose mother currently represents the constituency and his father was a long-time chief minister of the state. 

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

The actress is one of five actors running for the BJP this year.

Anjana Negia is an elementary school teacher who plans to vote for Ranaut. She said preferred candidates with no political experience and that a Modi-backed candidate would help “bring a fresh wave of development.” 

Milan Vaishnav, an expert on South Asian politics said fielding celebrities and seeking the endorsement of entertainment personalities is a relatively new tactic for the BJP, which “long resisted such tactics because of its cadre-based nature”.

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

Singh is a state minister responsible for urban development. He told Reuters that his family’s experiences gave him a better understanding of politics and that charges of nepotism were “shallow”.

The NDA is hoping to gain a higher number of seats in the northeastern state of Assam, where it won nine of 14 in 2019.  In March Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s BJP chief minister, said he was confident of winning a total of 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 change.  This method should ensure that no political party gains unfair advantage from the changes.

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

Reuters contributed to this report.