Source: 
CNA
https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/india-modi-government-cabinet-parliament-majority-election-bjp-nda-opposition-congress-4404671
Author: 
Neha Poonia and Calvin Yang
Date: 
12.06.2024
City: 
New Delhi

A coalition of two dozen parties denied Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party a majority for the first time in a decade.

India’s stronger-than-expected opposition - once relegated to the sidelines in the country’s politics - is now a potential force to be reckoned with, said observers. 

At the end of India’s mammoth general election, a coalition of two dozen parties denied Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a parliamentary majority on its own for the first time in a decade. 

The opposition, the INDIA bloc, put up a strong showing - securing 234 of the 543 seats - and has pledged to continue to fight him in parliament.

The ruling BJP secured only 240 seats of its own, down from the 303 from five years ago, failing to form the majority. The BJP-led alliance National Democratic Alliance (NDA), however, managed to secure a majority with 293 seats - more than the 272 seats needed.

The BJP would now need to rely on its alliance partners to pass legislation in parliament. 

“WE FOUGHT THIS ELECTION TO SAVE THE CONSTITUTION”

Even before the election results were announced last Wednesday (Jun 5), pollsters and analysts had written off the opposition INDIA coalition as fragile, disorganised, and lacking leadership. 

Despite not winning the election, the opposition parties are celebrating

“No longer can and should parliament be bulldozed like it has been for a decade now,” said Ms Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Committee.

“No longer will the writ of the ruling establishment be permitted to disrupt parliament, whimsically mistreat members, or push through legislation without due and proper consideration and debate. No longer will parliament be muzzled and stifled as it has been over the past 10 years.”

The surprising result marks a comeback for opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, whom critics have often called a weak, inaccessible and reluctant politician.

His party nearly doubled its tally of parliamentary seats to 99, and raised its vote share from the last election.

Mr Gandhi, who became the face of the opposition bloc in this election, contested two seats and won both by a landslide.

“We fought this election to save the Constitution,” he said. “Modi's BJP cracked down on our finances, arrested opposition leaders, forced leaders to defect to their party. I was sure that Indians would save our democracy.”

The INDIA bloc's performance came after it executed several campaign strategies. These include having joint rallies with partners, leaning on rural support enjoyed by regional parties in states like Uttar Pradesh, and holding pan-India yatra - a deeply evocative Sanskrit word meaning pilgrimage - marches in the run up to the polls.

“I think the narrative came largely from Rahul Gandhi and his yatra. The narrative brought all of us together,” said senior Congress leader Pawan Khera, adding that the alliance raised various pressing issues from unemployment to cost of living pressures. 

“So I think these issues resonated well with the entire country.”

COALITION POLITICS IS INHERENTLY RISKY

The Congress party admitted that forging consensus among traditional rivals in the alliance was tough.

There were defections to the BJP and disagreements over seat-sharing. During the election, there were INDIA bloc candidates who stood against each other in some seats.

But what turned the tide for them was a crackdown by the BJP in the run-up to the polls, said observers.

Dr Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, said: “They came together because they perhaps realised that this was the time, that if they did not come together, then there would not be (another) opportunity again”.

Delhi's popular Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, for instance, was arrested just before polling began in March, and other opposition leaders were targeted by federal agencies. The Congress' bank accounts were also restricted. 

“We surrendered our egos, our identities,” said Congress’ Mr Khera. “It was not difficult, Mr Modi made it very easy for us.”

Observers told CNA that the opposition, if they manage to stay united, could present a threat to Mr Modi's coalition government.

Consensus politics is new to Mr Modi, whose alliance with regional parties Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Janata Dal (United), or JDU - former Congress allies - seems fragile.

The parties have in the past admitted they do not agree with his Hindu nationalist politics. 

But experts said coalition politics is inherently risky, and chances of defections run both ways. They added that it is still unclear if the opposition can remain united against Mr Modi. 

“Coalitions in India are always kind of on tenterhooks,” said Dr Chhokar. 

“Because none of our politicians are really predictable. And therefore what they will do today, what they will do tomorrow or what they will do after two months is very difficult to say.”

INDIA’S NEW-BUT-OLD CABINET

On Monday, Mr Modi, newly sworn in for a historic third straight term, unveiled a Cabinet that retained his top ministers in crucial portfolios after the muted election win. 

The new-but-old line-up includes BJP loyalists Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari, Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar - the defence, interior, transport, finance and foreign ministers respectively - staying on in their roles. 

“There wasn't much of a surprise in the sense that most of the senior leaders have been reappointed to their positions,” said Dr Pradeep Taneja, an academic fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute. 

“Of the three very important portfolios, home, defence and foreign affairs, they have been assigned to the same ministers who were in charge of these portfolios in the last Modi government,” he told CNA938 on Wednesday. 

“In fact, the surprise is that there was no change because there was speculation that with this being a coalition government, there would be some important portfolios given to the allies, particularly the two parties (TDP and JDU) which are critical to the stability of this government.”

The posts given to coalition allies include civil aviation, heavy industry, and fisheries.

“They have been given important portfolios like civil aviation, heavy industry, but not the four critical portfolios,” said Dr Taneja. 

“There was speculation when it became clear that the BJP did not have a majority, that the coalition partners - these two parties - would be demanding the position of deputy prime minister or one of these four important ministries. But that hasn't happened.”

Dr Taneja believes the two regional parties are instead going to emphasise their own priorities at the state level, including demanding special category status for their states – Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. 

“If that is granted, if that's agreed by Prime Minister Modi, then it would mean that they will be continuing additional funding for their states,” he added. 

“Their priorities are to make sure that they strengthen their position in their two states so that they can win the next election. So guaranteeing additional funding for their states is much more important than getting a more important portfolio in the federal Cabinet.”

Given that Mr Modi would have to consult with his NDA partners before he can push any major policy decisions, it weakens his position, said political observers. 

Dr Taneja said: “He will have to be a much more consultative leader than an authoritative leader who makes his own decisions.”

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