India’s Opposition Puts Up United Front to Challenge Modi 

New Delhi — At a massive rally held in the Indian capital, top leaders of an opposition alliance accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of undermining democracy by intimidating and arresting political rivals.

The “Save Democracy” rally took place Sunday in New Delhi as India heads into a phased general election set to begin April 19.

It was held days after the arrest of a key opposition leader, the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, by the federal Enforcement Directorate on corruption charges over granting liquor licenses. Kejriwal is a staunch Modi critic.

Leaders of the INDIA alliance, which has been formed by about two dozen opposition parties, criticized Modi, saying he was decimating the opposition by using federal agencies to target its leaders with corruption probes and crippling their ability to campaign against the BJP.

“Opposition leaders are being intimidated and arrested — this is match-fixing,” the leader of the main opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, said.

“This is not an ordinary election. This election is to save the country, protect our constitution,” Gandhi told the huge crowd. He said if the BJP wins the election, “it will set the country on fire.”

The BJP has said it denies targeting opposition officials.

Before Kejriwal was detained earlier in March, another chief minister was arrested on corruption charges in January. Meanwhile, the Congress Party has accused the government of “tax terrorism,” saying its bank accounts have been frozen by the tax department, leaving it starved of funds to conduct its election campaign.

Opposition leaders also accused the Modi government of undermining democratic institutions.

“The country is headed toward autocracy. This one-man government is taking the country to ruin,” another opposition leader of the Shiv Sena party, Uddhav Thackeray, said.

Sunday’s rally was the first major show of solidarity by the INDIA alliance that was formed last year to jointly fight Modi, who is widely expected to win a third term. Many of the parties in the alliance are regional rivals and have struggled in recent months to come together on a common platform raising questions over their ability to counter the BJP.

Political analysts said the parties did put up a united front at Sunday’s rally. “The rally was fairly successful but it is it is very difficult to say what will be its response on the ground, and whether people will start looking at an alternative that is not driven by the Hindu nationalist ideology of BJP and not so centered around the personality of Modi,” political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said.

On the same day as the opposition rally, Prime Minister Modi launched his party’s election campaign in Meerut city in Uttar Pradesh, a hugely consequential state that sends 80 lawmakers to parliament.

Accusing previous governments of corruption, he said his fight against graft will continue. “Modi will not be stopped. Action will be taken against every corrupt politician,” he said.

Modi said his government had lifted 250 million people out of poverty and he was fast tracking economic development in the country. “The 2024 election is not only for a new government but for making India a developed country,” he said.

Analysts say Modi has built his appeal on a platform of muscular Hindu nationalism and a raft of welfare programs such as federal funding for construction of toilets and homes for millions of poor people.

“Modi is the clear frontrunner, that is what all the surveys so far show. But at the same time, I will not call the election until the last vote is counted because Indian elections can throw up surprises,” according to Mukhopadhyay.

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