Indian activist Partha Chaudhury is on a war footing as he strides out of the ruling BJP’s regional headquarters in Kolkata armed with passion and pages of voter lists.
“We need to meet each and every BJP supporter, and all of this has to be done in less than 300 days,” the 39-year-old tells a group of fellow activists advancing into the north of Kolkata, the teeming riverfront capital of West Bengal that’s home to about 15 million people.
“We want people to remember that the BJP knocked on their doors much before any opposition party worker did.”
Chaudhury and his team are among an army of 18,000 volunteer activists fanning out across India ahead of next year’s national election. Their mission is to meet – face-to-face – with about 35 million BJP supporters by January, or roughly 2,000 each.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, the world’s largest political outfit with 180 million members, is betting on what it says is the biggest voter outreach campaign in history, to secure a third term in power in the world’s most populous country.
Its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, remains enduringly popular among Indians after almost a decade having brought political stability, invested in infrastructure, and championed welfare reforms and national security.
Despite voter concerns about inflation, unemployment and uneven growth, opinion polls suggest the right-wing BJP will comfortably win a third term in the federal elections, expected to be held in April and May.
It’s no sure thing, though: growing anti-incumbency sentiment is conspiring with a newly formed national alliance of 26 opposition parties, including archrival Congress, to pose what BJP officials say will be Modi’s toughest test by far.
“For once we are now seeing a united opposition,” said Tamoghna Ghosh, a senior BJP official campaigning in Kolkata. “They may be devoid of a shared political ideology or vision, but their determination to defeat Modi can’t be overlooked.”
While Modi and his party stress they govern for all Indians, their emphasis of their Hindu faith and culture has disquieted some members of minority groups who feel politically excluded, especially Muslims who make up about 14% of the 1.4 billion population.
Some critics warn of an erosion of India’s status as a secular democracy, long enshrined in its constitution.
BJP leaders in New Delhi have been spurred to action by an internal report presented to them by researchers in February that concluded that an anti-incumbency vote could see the party lose about 34 of their 303 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, robbing it of the majority that gives it a freer hand to pass laws, three senior party officials told Reuters.
“This time we will have to win in uncharted territories as retaining all the existing seats for the third time in a row is going to be a challenge,” said BJP national president J.P. Nadda, who is leading the grassroots mobilisation drive.
In conversations with Reuters, Nadda and six other senior BJP figures outlined previously unreported details of the project – dubbed the “Big Outreach” internally – which they said marked a shift from its 2014 and 2019 election strategies focused more on large campaign rallies across the country.
It won’t be an easy task, or free of risk, according to Nalin Mehta, dean at the UPES School of Modern Media in Uttarakhand and author of the book “The New BJP”. He said the ground mobilisation, accompanied by an online campaign blitz, could fuel anti-incumbency sentiment in some quarters.
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“The BJP’s challenge as the dominant national party is to manage voter fatigue and to sustain the enthusiasm among its cadres after two terms in power,” Mehta added.
“The party’s ground-level cadre-building goes hand in hand with the creation of a massive digital footprint … as well as an industrial scale use of social media.”
‘BJP won’t be third-time lucky’
The BJP’s outreach began over the summer, much earlier than in its previous campaigns when mobilisation started about four months before national elections.
The campaign isn’t focusing on wooing voters from rival parties, according to the party officials, but will instead make direct contact with people who voted BJP in 2019 to lock down their support, enlist their campaigning assistance and provide intelligence on local issues.
The first phase, slated to end in early October, targets 134 priority constituencies with Hindu-majority populations where they lost by narrow margins in 2014 and 2019.
“These seats require energetic intervention and insulation of existing vote share,” said Nadda, adding that the second phase ending in January would see activists visit all of the 303 seats that the party won four years ago.
“This time, the world’s biggest party has launched the biggest-ever outreach to win the world’s biggest elections.”
Mahua Moitra, a national lawmaker with the regional opposition All India Trinamool Congress, isn’t impressed. She said the bolstered outreach efforts reflected the threats posed to the BJP by the “INDIA” alliance of 26 rivals formed in July to challenge the ruling party’s nationalist platform and oust Modi.
“The BJP is in panic mode and it’s forcing them to set up a taskforce to meet voters a year before elections,” she added. “They won’t be third-time lucky.”
Moitra is MP for Krishnanagar in West Bengal, a state in India’s far east where Muslims make up about a quarter of the population. The BJP is resented by many voters there who fear its brand of Hindu nationalism has marginalised minorities and hindered their economic progress.
Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the rival Congress party, said the coalition of 26 regional parties might not have the financial clout enjoyed by the ruling to launch a similar grassroots campaign, but the alliance had mustered a broad enough opposition base to oust Modi.
“The BJP’s grassroot workers can gather intelligence or coax voters but they will not win the 2024 election,” he said, adding that too much “in-your-face” campaigning could turn off voters.
Kolkata: Cradle of Renaissance
Not so, says BJP leader Nadda who says politicians must keep their ear to the ground.
Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is a city with deep historical, strategic and political significance. Long a trading hub for commodities like jute and tea, it was once the seat of British power in India as well as the cradle of an intellectual and artistic renaissance born in the 18th century.
Kolkata North, where and his group are campaigning, is a prime example of an early priority seat being targeted by the ruling party, as well as the problems the BJP faces nationally.
The BJP was beaten by a regional opposition party four years ago, even though it had strong support there, winning roughly 600,000 of the total 1.5 million votes cast.
Nonetheless Partha Chaudhury, an ophthalmologist by profession, has a clear vision as he traverses streets dotted with the 300-year-old crumbling architectural legacy of a bygone colonial era.
His first stop is a tin-shed shop in a slum district skirted by Victorian-era houses that have seen better days, where introduces himself to a bare-chested shopkeeper tending a cauldron of oil and kneading dough to fry samosas.
“Please tell us, elder brother, what can we do to make your life better?” Chaudhury asked the shopkeeper and simultaneously ticks off the man’s name in his voter list.
He speaks fervently about a slew of reforms introduced by the federal government to improve lives of the urban poor since Modi came to power in 2014.
Chaudhury intones a mantra he’ll repeat to more than 20 voters in the next three hours: “We know you vote for the BJP and we are here to understand what we should be doing to win this seat in 2024.”
Climate fund hailed, but ‘needs billions rather than millions’
The launch of a climate “loss and damage” fund drew praise and hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges at the UN’s COP28 talks on Thursday but also warnings that much more is needed to help vulnerable nations.
“We have delivered history today,” the UAE’s COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber told delegates who stood and applauded after the decision’s adoption in Dubai.
The announcement was followed immediately by financial pledges, including 225 million euros ($246 million) from the European Union, $100 million from the United Arab Emirates, another $100 million from Germany, $40 million from Britain, $17.5 million from the United States and $10 million from Japan.
After years of dragging their feet on the issue, wealthy nations backed the fund in a landmark agreement at the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last year.
Its launch on the first day of COP28 follows fraught negotiations on the mechanics of the fund, which will be housed at the World Bank on an interim basis.
“This sends a positive signal of momentum to the world,” Jaber said.
He said it was “the first time a decision has been adopted on day one of any COP and the speed in which we have done so is also unique, phenomenal and historic.”
“This is evidence that we can deliver. COP28 can and will deliver,” he added.
Environmental activists hold a banner during a climate strike action in Paris, France, June 23, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS
But the money pledged so far fall well short of the $100 billion that developing nations — which have historically been least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions — have said are needed to cover losses from natural disasters.
“The progress we’ve made in establishing a loss and damage fund is hugely significant for climate justice, but an empty fund can’t help our people,” said Madeleine Diouf Sarr, chair of the Group of the 46 Least Developed Countries.
The Alliance of Small Island States — among the most impacted by rising seas and other effects of climate change — said “the work is far from over”.
“We cannot rest until this fund is adequately financed and starts to actually alleviate the burden of vulnerable communities,” it said.
“Success starts when the international community can properly support the victims of this climate crisis, with efficient, direct access to the finance they urgently need,” the group added.
Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the climate and energy programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the financial commitments should be “in the billions, not millions”.
“Millions would be an insult given what’s happening already around the world,” Cleetus told reporters.
“We want to hear the starting point is a conversation about billions and then a plan to scale it up by 2030 so that it meets the needs that are clearly rising,” she said.
The fund will be housed in the World Bank for four years, a decision that developing nations begrudgingly accepted as the Washington-based institution is dominated by Western powers.
Its board members must now be appointed and represent wealthy and developing nations, and their first steps will be critical in building up its credibility.
A European diplomat said the first contributions will enable the financing of pilot projects and to test how the fund works before seeking more money “in a year or a year-and-a-half”.
Developed countries, the US chief among them, insisted that contributions be on a voluntary basis, and want richer emerging powers such as China and Saudi Arabia to open their wallets, too.
US climate envoy John Kerry said the government would work with Congress to provide the $17.5 million pledge and said the US expects the fund to “draw from a wide variety of sources”.
Richard Sherman, the South African co-chair of the committee that oversaw negotiations, acknowledged that “the outcome might not be satisfactory to all people.
“We certainly know that our colleagues in civil society have been shouting at us.”
‘Let us be a lesson’, Kazakhs wary of return to nuclear testing
As Russia warns of the rising risk of nuclear war, and relations with the United States sink into a deep freeze, communities close to the vast Soviet-era nuclear testing site in northern Kazakhstan have a message for leaders: “Let us be a lesson.”
Hundreds of tests were carried out between 1949 and 1989 on the barren steppe near the city of Semey, formerly known as Semipalatinsk, close to the Kazakh-Russian border. The effect of radiation had a devastating impact on the environment and local people’s health, and continues to affect lives there today.
Many nuclear proliferation experts believe resuming testing by either nuclear superpower more than 30 years after the last test is unlikely soon.
But tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have led to increasingly hostile rhetoric, and the arms control architecture built since the Soviet Union’s collapse more than three decades ago has begun to unravel.
In early November, President Vladimir Putin revoked Russia’s ratification of the 1996 global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. Moscow says it will not lead to a resumption of testing unless the United States does first.
“Let our suffering be a lesson to others,” said Serikbay Ybyrai, local leader in the village of Saryzhal, who saw tests being carried out some 20 km (12 miles) away when he was a boy. “If this (testing) resumes, humanity will disappear.”
When devices were detonated above ground – until 1963 when tests went underground – authorities would order local people out of homes and schools because of fears that ground tremors might cause buildings to collapse.
“I remember I was about five years old,” said Baglan Gabullin, a resident of Kaynar, another village that lived under the shadow of nuclear testing.
He recalled how adults would instruct him and his friends not to look in the direction of the blast.
“We were small, so on the contrary, out of curiosity we looked. The flash was yellow at first, and then the black mushroom grew,” he said.
Kazakh authorities estimate up to 1.5 million people were exposed to residual radioactive fallout from testing. Over 1 million received certificates confirming their status as victims of tests, making them eligible for an 18,000-tenge ($40) monthly payout.
‘Everyone started dying’
Maira Abenova, an activist from the Semey region who set up a non-governmental organisation protecting the rights of nuclear test victims after losing most family members to diseases she said were related, urged politicians not to allow nuclear escalation.
“As someone living with the consequences of what you could call 40 years of nuclear warfare, I think we can tell the world what we have gone through,” she said.
There is little reliable data on the specific health impact of testing in Kazakhstan.
But scientists say exposure to radioactive material on the ground, inhalation of radioactive particles in the air and ingestion of contaminated food including local livestock contributed to increased cancer risk and cases of congenital malformation.
UN climate talks open in oil-rich UAE, pressure for urgent action
The UN climate conference opened Thursday with nations urged to make faster cuts to planet-warming emissions and phase out fossil fuels as scepticism swirls over the oil-rich United Arab Emirates hosting the talks.
The two-week-long negotiations in a vast exhibition venue in Dubai come at a pivotal moment, with emissions still climbing and the UN saying this year is likely to be the hottest in human history.
World leaders, Britain’s King Charles III and activists and lobbyists are among more than 97,000 people jetting into the flashy Gulf city, which boasts the world’s tallest skyscraper, one of its busiest airports, and an indoor ski slope.
Double the size of last year’s conference, COP28 is billed as the largest-ever climate gathering and the UN and hosts the UAE say they will be the most important since Paris 2015.
There, nations agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era, and preferably to a safer limit of 1.5C.
But scientists say the world is off-track, and the nearly 200 nations gathering for COP28 must commit to accelerating climate action or risk the worst impacts of a warming planet.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said leaders should aim for a complete “phaseout” of fossil fuels, a proposal opposed by some powerful nations that has dogged past negotiations.
“Obviously, I am strongly in favour of language that includes (a) phaseout, even with a reasonable time framework,” Guterres told AFP before flying to Dubai.
A central focus will be a stocktake of the world’s limited progress on curbing global warming, which requires an official response at these talks.
Hosts under fire
On Thursday, nations are expected to formally approve the launch of a “loss and damage” fund to compensate climate-vulnerable countries after a year of hard-fought negotiations over how it would work.
But it remains to be filled, with rich nations urged to make contributions so the money can start flowing.
The UAE sees itself as a bridge between the rich developed nations most responsible for historic emissions and the rest of the world, which has contributed less to global warming but suffers its worst consequences.
But the decision for it to host has attracted a firestorm of criticism, particularly as the man appointed to steer the talks, Sultan Al Jaber, is also head of UAE state oil giant ADNOC.
Jaber, who also chairs a clean energy company, has defended his record, and strenuously denied this week that he used the COP presidency to pursue new fossil fuel deals, allegations first reported by the BBC.
Christiana Figueres, who was UN climate chief when the Paris deal was reached, questioned the role of fossil fuel companies at COP and said she was “giving up hope” they could be part of the solution to warming.
Guterres said Jaber was in a better position to tell the oil industry that a fossil fuel phaseout was necessary than “if he was the member of an NGO with a very solid pro-climate record.”
“A very clear signal that the era of fossil fuels needs to end very rapidly is our litmus test for COP28,” said Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager at Oil Change International.
Rule by consensus
Rallying a common position on the matter will be difficult at COP where all nations — whether dependent on oil, sinking beneath rising seas or locked in geopolitical rivalry — must take decisions unanimously.
The UAE hopes to marshal an agreement on the tripling of renewable energy and doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.
Nations will navigate a range of thorny issues between November 30 and December 12, and experts say geopolitical tensions and building trust could be a huge challenge.
At the opening of the conference, delegates were asked to pause for a minute’s silence for civilians killed in the Gaza conflict.
On the sidelines of COP, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will hold talks with diplomats on the release of hostages held by Hamas, his office said. He is also scheduled to speak on Friday within minutes of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority.
Neither US President Joe Biden nor Chinese President Xi Jinping are attending, though Washington is sending Vice President Kamala Harris.
But the US and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, did make a rare joint announcement on the climate this month that spurred optimism going into COP.
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