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

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

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.


Cyprus plans to build a major naval base to play a larger geopolitical role, says defense minister

An Open Arms ship and ship Jennifer, of the World Central Kitchen carrying food aid for the Gaza Strip, prepare to set sail.
An Open Arms ship and ship Jennifer, of the World Central Kitchen carrying food aid for the Gaza Strip, prepare to set sail.
Updated 17 July 2024
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Cyprus plans to build a major naval base to play a larger geopolitical role, says defense minister

An Open Arms ship and ship Jennifer, of the World Central Kitchen carrying food aid for the Gaza Strip, prepare to set sail.
  • Cyprus has in recent months been staging ground for collection and delivery of donated humanitarian aid to Gaza
  • Aid is being shipped from the Cypriot port of Larnaca to the Palestinian territory after being security screened

NICOSIA: Cyprus’ defense minister said Wednesday that plans are in motion to build a major naval base on the east Mediterranean island nation’s southern coast capable of hosting large ships from European Union countries and other nations to carry out a variety of missions including humanitarian aid deliveries to the tumultuous Middle East region.
Vasilis Palmas told reporters that Cyprus’ recently elevated geopolitical role as the European Union’s closest member to the Middle East warrants the building of infrastructure that can support policies geared toward the region.
Cyprus has in recent months been the staging ground for the collection and delivery of donated humanitarian aid to war-ravaged Gaza. The aid is being shipped from the Cypriot port of Larnaca to the Palestinian territory after being security screened. Last year, Cyprus served as a waystation for third-country nationals evacuated from Sudan.
Palmas said the construction of the base would “contribute decisively” to policy implementation in the region.
He said Greece is contributing technical know-how to the project, while actual construction will be guided by the findings of an expert study that will be completed in the next few days.
The naval base will be built on an existing naval installation some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of the coastal town of Limassol, which in 2011 was the site of a huge explosion of 480 tons of seized Iranian gunpowder that killed 13 people, knocked out Cyprus’ main power station and stirred up a political crisis.


190 Russian, Ukrainian prisoners exchanged following UAE mediation efforts

190 Russian, Ukrainian prisoners exchanged following UAE mediation efforts
Updated 17 July 2024
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190 Russian, Ukrainian prisoners exchanged following UAE mediation efforts

190 Russian, Ukrainian prisoners exchanged following UAE mediation efforts

ABU DHABI: The UAE has succeeded in securing the exchange of 190 prisoners of war between Russian and Ukraine, state news agency WAM has reported.

The UAE now secured the release of 1,558 captives with its sixth successful mediation effort between the warring parties, less than one month after the previous exchange process, the report added.

“These efforts reflect the UAE’s commitment to being a reliable mediator supporting diplomacy to resolve the crisis between the two countries,” a statement for the UAE’s foreign ministry said.

The UAE was committed to ‘continuing all efforts and initiatives aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict, stressing the importance of dialogue, and de-escalation, as the only ways to resolve the conflict, and for mitigating its humanitarian repercussions,’ it added.

The UAE also managed to negotiate the exchange of two prisoners between the United States and the Russian Federation in December 2022.


Pakistan summons Taliban envoy after attack on military base

Pakistan summons Taliban envoy after attack on military base
Updated 17 July 2024
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Pakistan summons Taliban envoy after attack on military base

Pakistan summons Taliban envoy after attack on military base

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's foreign ministry summoned the Taliban's deputy head of mission on Wednesday and urged their administration to take action against Afghanistan-based militant groups that Islamabad says attacked a military base this week.
Militants attacked the base in Bannu in northwestern Pakistan on Monday, killing eight Pakistani security force members.


Bangladesh shuts educational institutions after students killed in protests

Bangladesh shuts educational institutions after students killed in protests
Updated 17 July 2024
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Bangladesh shuts educational institutions after students killed in protests

Bangladesh shuts educational institutions after students killed in protests
  • Students say seven killed in overnight clashes with police, government supporters
  • They protest reservation of 30 percent of government jobs for families of 1971 war fighters

DHAKA: Bangladesh indefinitely closed all educational institutions on Wednesday following deadly clashes between students and police, as campus protests against job quotas spread across the country.

Students have been demonstrating at campuses since early July against the government’s quota system, in which 30 percent of public service jobs are reserved for the families of those who fought in Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war.

The students demand the system’s reform and more just distribution of the well-paid public service jobs.

The protests turned violent on Sunday, after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undermined the cause by suggesting that the demonstrators supported the “razakars,” or those who had collaborated with the Pakistani military — an enemy occupying force — during the 1971 war.

Students denounced the comparison and more of them joined the rallies, where they clashed with members of the youth wing of Hasina’s ruling Awami League party and security forces.

As violence escalated and turned deadly on Tuesday, the Ministry of Education and the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh announced in separate notifications that all secondary educational institutions, universities and medical colleges across the country would remain closed “until further notice” and “for the safety of the students.”

According to local media reports at least six people, including four students, were killed and 400 injured when the clashes broke out in Dhaka, Chottogram, Rajshahi and Rangpur.

Protesters estimate that the actual numbers are even higher.

“More than 1,000 of our protesters were injured during the clashes. Seven died, including one bystander. Just now, we held funeral prayers in absentia for our fellows who lost their lives,” said Mohammad Nahid Islam, coordinator of the Students Against Discrimination group, which is part of the protests in Dhaka.

“Today, police attacked protesting students at the Dhaka University campus with a stun grenade and tear gas shells. Many of our female students became sick and injured ... We are concerned about our security.”

Despite repeated attempts by Arab News, Bangladesh Police did not respond to requests for comment.


Women lawyers top Philippines’ Shariah Bar exams

Women lawyers top Philippines’ Shariah Bar exams
Updated 17 July 2024
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Women lawyers top Philippines’ Shariah Bar exams

Women lawyers top Philippines’ Shariah Bar exams

MANILA: Women have topped this year’s Shariah Bar examinations in the Philippines, with Supreme Court data showing that female examinees not only obtained the best score but also had the highest passing rate.

Shariah, or Islamic law, is partially implemented in the Philippines, applicable only to the Muslim community — about 10 percent of the 120 million of the country’s predominantly Catholic population.

A total of 853 candidates took part in the Shariah Bar exam in April and May, and 183 passed it. More than half of those who passed the exams were women, nine of whom were among the top 10 scorers.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Filomena Singh announced the results on Tuesday, saying that “62.3 percent of the total passers are female. I’m very happy to announce that.”

This year’s exam also saw the “largest number of Shariah Bar examinees we have had in nearly 40 years,” Singh said.

“This is to strengthen and make the Shariah justice system more accessible by encouraging and giving more opportunities to aspiring Shariah councilors.”

Separate from the regular Bar tests for aspiring lawyers, the Shariah Bar exams are the professional licensure examination covering Islamic law for Shariah court councilor candidates.

Established under the 1977 Code of Muslim Personal Laws, the Islamic law courts are under the administrative supervision of the Supreme Court and have jurisdiction over the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region as well as other parts of the southern Mindanao island, which have significant Muslim populations.

The courts have application over personal status law, including marriage, as well as financial laws and halal certification.

The Supreme Court said last year that in its goal to “strengthen the Shariah justice system” under the Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovations 2022-2027, it was studying the possibility of expanding the mandate of Islamic courts to cover also criminal and commercial cases.