Is Modi worried? The long-deflated Indian opposition finds some momentum.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered India’s general elections projecting supreme confidence. “Ab ki baar, 400 paar” was the motto of his party; This time, he would surpass 400 seats in the lower house of Parliament, an astonishing majority.

But as the seven-week voting period enters its final stretch, with results expected on June 4, India is witnessing something unusual from its powerful leader. It’s seeing him sweat.

As Modi crisscrosses the country to rallies in 100-degree heat, he has often appeared defensive and at times nervous. He has frequently set aside his party’s main campaign message – that India is growing under his leadership – to counter his opponents’ depiction of him as a supporter of business and caste elites. He has resorted to stoking anti-Muslim sentiments to defend himself against attempts to divide his Hindu support base, only to deny his own words later.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains a heavy favorite. But he is finding that the political opposition, discarded after big defeats to Modi in the previous two national elections, still has some fight left in him.

The opposition has found strength in challenging Modi’s control over the national narrative. With the media intimidated by him, opposition leaders have turned to online platforms to find an audience for a speech focused on economic and social justice, presenting the prime minister as the main culprit for the growing inequality of the India.

Ahead of the election, the often feuding opposition parties came together in a grand alliance to confront a shared threat: what they call Modi’s mission to paralyze them and remake the country into a one-party government. The alliance lost precious time in the months before the vote, bogged down by internal differences. But it has largely remained united despite Modi’s efforts to alienate some of its members and marginalize others with legal action.

The alliance hopes this will translate into a better election result, after scattered votes for opposition parties in the 2019 elections benefited Modi. To have any hope of significantly cutting into the ruling party’s current strong majority in Parliament, the opposition will have to win a large number of seats in the more populous north, where the BJP is well entrenched, and maintain its position in the more prosperous south. . .

“The opposition realized it was now or never,” said Arati Jerath, a political analyst in New Delhi. “He had to fight Modi with all the weapons he could muster or face certain death.”

Analysts say elections that focus on local issues favor the opposition. This spring, Modi again turned a parliamentary election, contested among more than 540 seats, into a presidential-style national referendum on his enormous popularity and achievements.

But it has become clear that, a decade into his government, his ability to divert elections from local concerns (and cover up parochial strife and party infighting) is waning. The opposition has tried to take advantage with a spirited running game.

In the run-up to the vote, Modi intensified political repression. The chief ministers of two opposition-controlled states were jailed and the bank accounts of the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, were virtually frozen. “But people started campaigning door to door, town to town, state to state. So that has really become a base for the opposition,” Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the Congress Party, said in an interview.

“Now they are frustrated,” he added, referring to the BJP.

The Congress Party is trying to dig itself out of a huge hole. The rise of regional caste-based parties marginalized the once-dominant Congress in electorally crucial northern India, and the rise of Modi set it back even further. Modi, who had spent his entire life rising from a humble background, easily portrayed Congress’s Rahul Gandhi as a distant and lightweight beneficiary of dynastic politics.

The extent to which the Congress is trying to distance itself from that impression is evident in its election manifesto, both in form and substance.

The party’s 2019 manifesto had a fresh-faced Gandhi front and center with a message of jobs and economic development. In the 2024 document, he sports a gray beard, a nod to the time he spent connecting with rural India during two cross-country trips since 2022, one of them covering 2,000 miles on foot.

As if that were not enough, next to him is Kharge, 81, elected president of the Congress in 2022. His half-century in politics and his experience as a Dalit at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy help counter Modi’s personal history.

Congress’s campaign promises – from cash transfers to poor women to a “first job guarantee” for young people through one-year paid apprenticeships – show it has learned from its successes in India’s southern states. said Sugata Srinivasaraju, author of a book about Mr. Gandhi’s struggles leading his party.

“This is good,” Srinivasaraju said. “But Congress has no emotional or cultural argument to counter” the BJP, with its Hindu nationalist ideology.

The closest the Congress has come is its effort to merge two issues: long-standing caste inequality and rising unemployment.

The Constitution of India reserves approximately half of government jobs and places in higher education for the middle and lower ranks of the caste system. As the economy struggles to create enough private sector jobs, these government jobs are considered crucial to any hope of economic mobility.

Congress’ call for a census of Indians by caste (there has been no official national data on the size of each caste for decades) appears to be striking a chord. The party says such an exercise would ensure that marginalized Indians get their fair share of jobs.

That push is also fueling two accusations leveled at Modi: that he has overseen an economy that benefits only billionaires and that his party has a bias toward upper castes. While it is true that the BJP was once an urban, upper-caste party, Modi has broadened its base by incorporating lower castes. But his response to the accusation suggests he is concerned about the label sticking.

“He is pro-rich,” Kharge said at a large rally in Mumbai. “He has done nothing for the poor.”

Behind Kharge were the leaders of several parties in the alliance, each of whom would resort to a grievance to describe Modi as dangerous to India.

One of them, Arvind Kejriwal, made a particularly personal case that Modi is trying to turn the country into something like Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin: “one nation, one leader.”

“I come straight from jail,” Mr. Kejriwal began his speech.

His Aam Aadmi Party holds power in the Delhi region and the northern state of Punjab. His expansion is a threat to Modi, whose government arrested Kejriwal on corruption charges just before the election, creating the absurd reality in which India’s capital was governed from a cell.

Kejriwal managed to secure a three-week bail during the campaign. As he jumps from rally to rally across the country, his connection to the crowds makes it clear why Modi would have liked to keep him behind bars.

In Mumbai, he described India under the Modi government as a dystopia where anyone who stands in the way of the prime minister will be locked up. Kejriwal said he had been kept under multiple camera surveillance in the jail: “monitoring what time I wake up, what time I go to the bathroom, how long I sit on the toilet.”

Then he made his last appeal. This election, he said, is a vote in favor of keeping him in prison or restoring his freedom. He will be seeing the results on June 4 from his cell phone.

“You can write me letters,” he said. “Cell No. 25, Jail No. 2, Tihar Jail.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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