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India’s opposition makes its election case, calling Modi an autocrat and promising aid to the poor

In World
April 05, 2024

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s main opposition party vowed to boost social spending and reverse what it views as a slide into autocracy as it laid out its campaign promises on Friday, two weeks before the start of a weeks-long, multi-phase general election.

Most polls have predicted a victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party for a third straight five-year term. But the Congress Party argues that he’s undermined India’s democracy and favored the interests of the rich in its election manifesto.

India holds elections on different days in different parts of the country, stretching over weeks. Voting for the country’s parliament this year will begin on April 19 and run until June 1, and the results will be announced on June 4.

Modi is broadly popular in India, where he’s considered a champion of the country’s Hindu majority and has overseen rapid economic growth. But critics say another term for the BJP could undermine India’s status as a secular, democratic nation, saying it’s 10 years in power have brought attacks by Hindu nationalists against the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.

Rahul Gandhi, a former Congress party president, said “this election is fundamentally a different election. I don’t think that democracy has been as much at risk, the constitution has been at as much risk as it is today.”

Congress’s president, Mallikarjun Kharge, accused the government of crippling his party by freezing its bank accounts in a tax dispute ahead of national elections. Tax authorities have demanded nearly 35 billion rupees ($426 million) from the Congress party.

The BJP said the Congress party’s bank accounts were partially frozen because it had failed to file an income tax return for cash donations it received from 2017-18 onward, and it had therefore lost the tax exemption available to political parties.

The Modi government has opened tax investigations against a number of critical voices in recent years and cited tax issues to cancel the registration of many foreign-funded non-governmental organizations.

In February last year, tax authorities carried out searches of the BBC’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices saying that it had not fully declared its income and profits from its operations in the country. The searches came after the British broadcaster aired a documentary in the U.K. that criticized Modi.

Congress also attacked Modi’s economic record, saying that despite strong growth he’s presided over a widening gap between rich and poor and that his economy has failed to provide jobs for many Indians.

The official unemployment rate was 4% in 2023, but Congress wrote that the government has under-counted unemployment, citing its own surveys.

According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, CMIE, a leading private business information company, the unemployment rate in India stood at 8.3% in December, up from 6.5% in January 2022.

Congress laid out economic plans it said could lift 230 million people out of poverty in 10 years, targeting poverty, unemployment and low agricultural prices.

It’s promising to give each woman in a poor family 100,000 rupees ($1,200) a year, to spend a similar amount on apprenticeships for people below 25, to fill nearly 3 million vacancies in the federal government, and to boost a cap on public health insurance payments from 500,000 rupees per incident to 2.5 million.

The BJP has implemented social programs that improved access to clean toilets, health care, and cooking gas, and introduced programs that provide free grain to the poor and pay 6,000 rupees ($73) a year to poor farmers.

Congress also promised to raise incomes for farmers with policies including wider use of minimum crop price policies. Tens of thousands of Indian farmers protested in India in 2021 to demand guaranteed crop prices, and in March this year thousands went to New Delhi with renewed demands.

The BJP is expected to release its election manifesto next week.

Prime Minister Modi has been campaigning extensively across the country, promising to expand the country’s economy to $5 trillion by 2027 from around $3.7 trillion. He is also promising to put India on track to become a developed country by 2047, when the country celebrates 100 years of independence from British colonialists.

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