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India’s opposition, written off as too weak, makes a stunning comeback to slow Modi’s juggernaut

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NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s bruised and battered opposition was largely written off in the lead-up to the national election as too weak and fragmented to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his powerful Hindu nationalist governing party.

It scored a stunning comeback, slowing the Modi juggernaut and pushing his Bharatiya Janata Party well below the majority mark. It’s unchartered territory for the populist prime minister, who needs the help of his allies to stay in power. That could significantly change his governance style after he enjoyed a commanding majority in Parliament for a decade.

The election results released Wednesday also marked a revival for the main opposition Congress party and its allies, who defied predictions of decline and made deep inroads into governing party strongholds, resetting India’s political landscape. The opposition won a total of 232 seats out of 543, doubling its strength from the last election.

“The opposition has proved to be tremendously resilient and shown courage of conviction. In many ways it has saved India’s democracy and shown Modi that he can be challenged — and even humbled by denting his image of electoral invincibility,” said journalist and political analyst Rasheed Kidwai.

The unwieldy grouping of more than two dozen opposition parties, called INDIA, was formed last year. Beset with ideological differences and personality clashes, what glued them together was a shared perceived threat: what they call Modi’s tightening grip on India’s democratic institutions and Parliament, and his strident Hindu nationalism that has targeted the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims.

The election battle is between “Narendra Modi and INDIA, his ideology and INDIA,” the alliance’s campaign face, Rahul Gandhi, said at an opposition meeting last year.

Gandhi, heir to India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has long been mocked by Modi, his party and his supporters as a beneficiary of dynastic politics. Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers.

Under his leadership, the Congress party was reduced to a paltry 52 seats in 2019 when Modi romped to victory in a landslide win. And last year he was expelled from Parliament due to a defamation case after Modi’s party accused him of mocking the prime minister’s surname. (He was later returned to his seat by India’s top court.)

But ahead of the 2024 election, Gandhi went through a transformation — he embarked on two cross-country marches against what he called Modi’s politics of hate, re-energizing his party’s members and rehabilitating his image.

During the election campaign, he, along with other opposition leaders, sought to galvanize voters on issues such as high unemployment, growing inequality and economic and social injustice, while targeting Modi over his polarizing campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“They certainly gained significant momentum through the course of the campaign, to the point where the opposition agendas became the agenda points of this election,” said Yamini Aiyar, a public policy scholar.

The election results showed his messaging worked with the voters, as his party made substantial gains in BJP-governed states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra by tapping into economic stress. It won 99 seats across India.

“Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a strong national leader and that should worry Modi,” Kidwai said.

The opposition proved even more successful in a Modi party bastion where it flipped the largest number of seats: Uttar Pradesh, which sends the most lawmakers of any state — 80 — to Parliament.

Long considered the biggest prize in Indian elections, the opposition clinched a staggering 44 parliamentary seats in the state, with the regional Samajwadi Party winning a whopping 37, leaving Modi’s party with less than half of the seats. In the 2019 election, the BJP won 62 seats in the state.

The opposition also managed to wrest away BJP’s seat in Ayodhya city, a deeply symbolic loss for Modi’s party after the prime minister opened a controversial grand Hindu temple on the site of a razed mosque there in January. The opening of the temple dedicated to Lord Ram, at which Modi performed rituals, marked the unofficial start of his election campaign, with his party hoping it would resonate with the Hindu majority and bring more voters into its fold.

“The BJP lost because its leadership did not have its ears to the ground. They believed that the issue of the Ram Temple would secure their victory, but they overlooked important issues like jobs and inflation,” said political analyst Amarnath Agarwal.

A strong showing by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu further boosted the opposition’s numbers, denying Modi the supermajority he hoped for after exhibiting confidence his alliance would take 400 seats.

It also meant that the regional parties, once relegated to the margins after Modi’s dominating wins in 2014 and 2019, will acquire a greater political space in Indian politics.

“It also gives a lot of power back to the states,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We’ve seen a lot of centralization in the hands of the executive, in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office specifically.”

The opposition’s surprise gains came against the backdrop of what it calls Modi’s intensified political crackdown against them.

Modi and his government have increasingly wielded strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents. In the run-up to the election, opposition leaders and parties faced a slew of legal and financial challenges. The chief ministers of two opposition-controlled states were thrown in jail and the bank accounts of the Congress party were temporarily frozen.

Aiyar, the public policy scholar, said the opposition was able to “palpably catch on to signs of discontentment” even as it faced “fairly significant constraints of their own.”

“This was certainly not a level playing field at the start of the election,” she said.

As election results showed the opposition doing better than expected on Tuesday, a beaming Gandhi pulled out a red-jacketed copy of India’s Constitution that he had displayed on the campaign trail and said his alliance’s performance was the “first step in its fight” to save the charter.

“India’s poorest stood up to save the Constitution,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.

By SHEIKH SAALIQ and KRUTIKA PATHI
Associated Press

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