A HINDU holy man arrives to vote at a polling station in Ayodhya, on Monday.—AFP
A HINDU holy man arrives to vote at a polling station in Ayodhya, on Monday.—AFP

NEW DELHI: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces voter fatigue and some resistance from a resurgent opposition in India’s mammoth general election, foot soldiers of his party’s Hindu nationalist parent have stepped in to help regain momentum, insiders said.

With less than two weeks left of a six-week voting schedule, voter turnout has been lower than previous elections, raising concern within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that some of its core supporters were staying away.

Modi’s party, chasing a rare third term in office, has also faced stronger opposition than anticipated in a handful of states, leading election experts and Indian financial markets to adjust forecasts of a landslide win.

With no exit polls allowed until all the voting is completed on June 1, it’s difficult to judge how well or poorly candidates are faring. But most analysts say Modi should be able to retain a majority in the 543-seat parliament when votes are counted on June 4.

Bread and butter issues ‘replacing religious fervour’ in many parts of India

“The trend is suggesting that Modi will be back in power with a reduced majority,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank. But he added: “Any shortfall of a clear mandate of 300 seats for BJP will reflect poorly on Modi.”

At the start of the campaign, Modi was projected to win up to three-fourths of the seats, with the opposition led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, a distant second.

After the first two phases of voting, though, analysts and political workers said the chances of the BJP getting above 362 seats, the two-thirds majority required to bring changes in the constitution, had been affected.

One reason the opposition is clawing back ground is the fading of the euphoria in India’s Hindu majority when Modi inaugurated a temple in January on a site disputed with the country’s minority Muslims.

Bread and butter issues seem to be replacing religious fervour in many parts of the country. Jobless youth in northern Haryana state have held street protests against the BJP during the campaign and in western Maharashtra, farmers incensed over a ban on onion exports canvassed support for an opposition candidate.

In the big, battleground state of Bihar, a BJP lawmaker has defected to the opposition Congress party saying the poor have been left behind in India’s world-beating economic growth. Some of the unhappiness is resulting in a swing to the opposition or in apathy, analysts have said.

“The decline in voting has been a cause of concern in recent weeks and we have been working to bring a shift in the numbers,” said Rajiv Tuli, an official at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu group that is the ideological parent of the BJP.

“Meetings, outreach campaigns and even a renewed push to remind voters about ensuring a full-majority government comes to power did become critical after the first phase of voting.”

Go out and vote

RSS volunteers are hosting neighbourhood meetings in their homes to persuade people to go out and vote, said Ritesh Agarwal, the senior publicity official for the group in the New Delhi region.

Three national spokespersons of the BJP said they were aware that the RSS was working to help improve voter turnout but declined comment on how this would affect the BJP.

“I don’t think there is any sense that BJP is in a weak position,” said spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla, adding that a low turnout affected all parties and that voter numbers had increased after the first two phases.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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