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Has India’s opposition failed? | India

India’s six-week-long multi-phase election has finally come to a close. According to exit polls released on Sunday, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has secured a legislative majority. 

While the final make-up of the legislature will become clear on May 23, when final results are released, what is already clear is that the Indian opposition has failed to effectively counter the political appeal of the BJP and its nationalistic ideology.

The main challenger to the BJP’s second mandate in this election season was the Indian Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi, a fourth-generation leader of the Nehru family. After his party was decimated in the 2014 general elections, Gandhi had to work hard to make its platform politically relevant once again and revamp his own image of an elitist and detached political leader.

Under his leadership, Congress adopted a strategy of trying to present Modi as an ineffective chowkidar (or caretaker). Almost every speech he made would begin or conclude with the slogan “chowkidar chor hai” (or “the protector is the thief”), accusing Modi of shielding big businessmen and industrialists and failing on his promises to improve the life of the ordinary Indian.

Congress also tried to put a dent in Modi’s image as the scrupulous and honest leader by using a major corruption scandal which involved the purchase 36 French fighter jets which erupted last year. Although a big part of the Indian and international media covered the Rafale scandal, the issue did not stick on the ground. When I travelled to rural areas in India, farmers, lower income group workers, and labourers claimed ignorance of the issue, calling it a rich man’s concern.

The party also tried to win the poor vote by criticising the BJP’s disastrous agrarian policies, costly demonetisation move, and failure to combat poverty. Among the party’s campaign promises were an $80 monthly transfer scheme for households below the poverty line. None of these strategies resulted in a significant shift in the rural and urban poor vote.

Congress also tried hard to fight back the BJP’s religious attacks and accusations that it was an “anti-Hindu” and “pro-Muslim” party. As the country witnessed lynchings, increasing majoritarianism, and attacks on minorities and civil liberties, Gandhi chose to embark on a series of visits to major Hindu temples across the country and often remained silent on the victimisation of minorities. The soft Hindutva approach of Congress seems to have backfired. As one BJP leader told me, “When you have the original Hindutva leaders, why would voters rely on a copy?”

The Congress leader himself went through a significant transformation. Having long been accused of living it large at his posh Tughlaq Lane residence in New Delhi, hobnobbing with his elite friends, and going off on vacations abroad exactly when the country needed an opposition leader to take on Modi, this election season Gandhi made a strong effort to be seen as a politician connected to the ground.

Although previously he was known to shy away from the media glare, in the past month he spoke to almost every media house in the country, whether regional or national. He was everywhere: news websites, television channels, newspapers; almost every request for an interview has been granted. Gandhi was joined by his sister Priyanka, who actively campaigned in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. But her entry was late and failed to sway voters in a state where the BJP cadres had been successfully managing a sustained Modi campaign for the last two years.

But perhaps the biggest mistake by Congress, which potentially helped the BJP seal an electoral victory, was not pushing hard enough to create a united front of major national and regional parties.

In New Delhi, the party did not form an alliance with the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi party which rose to fame in 2014 with a rebellious electoral campaign and victory. Neither Gandhi nor Kejriwal, both critics of Modi, could set aside their differences to jointly contest elections in the capital. As a result, the BJP is slated to take all seven seats contested in New Delhi, at least according to exit polls.

Congress also refused to be the adhesive that could stitch an alliance with two important players in the key state of Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. The two, along with another local outfit, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, had formed the Mahagathbandhan, which was the most powerful opposition to the Modi campaign in the state.

Mayawati, in particular, was the most formidable cultural and political challenger to Modi’s image of being a man from a humble background, a chaiwala (or tea seller). She is a Dalit, an assertive voice from the underprivileged caste, the daughter of a telephone operator, who has fought caste hierarchy and patriarchy to become the most important Dalit leader in the country today. 

Wile Mahagathbandhan managed to “steal” some seats from BJP, the presence of Congress might have split the opposition vote, which again would benefit the ruling party.

But it wasn’t only Congress that failed to effectively counter the BJP. In West Bengal, its main challenger was Mamata Banerjee, who leads the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a splinter party of the Congress.

The BJP sought to win votes campaigning on a single issue: the “threat” of Bangladeshi migrants. It accused Banerjee of shielding “infiltrators” in order to appease the Muslim minority. A feisty and outspoken politician, the TMC leader took the ruling party head-on. Yet her campaign also failed to stave off its political advance.

According to the exit polls, the BJP, which so far only had two seats in West Bengal, is now poised to enter the double-digit mark for the first time in a state long known for being a bastion of the left. Its anti-migrant policies and campaign have worked not just in West Bengal but also in the neighbouring state of Assam which now shows a sweep for the BJP.

In the south, the BJP has never been a dominant force and, like the Congress, played a secondary role in most alliances in this election. While several regional parties allied with Gandhi’s party are expected to perform well, there are also some, such as Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh state, which are expected to eventually back the BJP in parliament.

Overall, if exit polls prove to be true, it seems the BJP has not only managed to defeat Congress, but also regional parties, which constituted its biggest opposition.

Congress functionaries have already begun lamenting the failures of the party. Some have blamed the top leaders and the coterie surrounding them for being unable to sense the mood of the Indian streets full of polarised voters enamoured by Modi’s presidential-style election campaign. The party found itself on the wrong foot, unable to counter the nationalist narrative of the ruling party and build a united front against it.

The BJP kept baiting the opposition with its ultra-nationalist statements and Congress and other parties found themselves falling for the narrative and spending more time countering Modi on his surgical attacks rather than listening to the voice of the people.

Exit polls in India have been proven wrong in the past, as happened in 2004, when they failed to predict a Congress victory. But, unlike 2004, the palpable sentiment on the ground is that the country has no alternative to the ruling party. Rahul Gandhi tried hard, and so did his allies, but he failed to convince the Indian voter that he could be the alternative for a country that urgently needs economic and social reforms.

The opposition has not given up and many have dismissed the exit polls, but May 23 could be a reality check.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

European elections: Macron fights to contain far-right in EU poll

French presidents rarely publicly campaign in European elections but Macron is breaking with tradition. He says Europe is in crisis and he is fighting to save it.

Qatar says no invitation to emergency summits in Saudi Arabia | Qatar News

Qatar has not received invitation to two summits, a foreign ministry official said in apparent reference to emergency meetings of Gulf and Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia earmarked for this month after attacks on Saudi oil assets.

On Sunday, Saudi King Salman proposed holding the two summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of last week’s drone attacks on oil installations in the kingdom and attacks on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

“Qatar, which is still isolated from its neighbours, did not receive an invitation to attend the two summits,” the director of the Foreign Ministry Information Office said in a tweet on Monday, citing State Minister for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad al-Muraikhi.

Riyadh has accused Tehran of ordering last week’s drone attacks on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Houthi group.

Iran denied it was behind the attacks and a senior Iranian military commander was quoted as saying his country is not looking for war.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance towards the besetting challenges and risks,” UAE’s foreign ministry said on Sunday.

Qatar has been blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt since June 2017. The quartet cut off diplomatic and economic ties after accusing Doha of having close ties with regional rival Iran and harbouring “terrorism” – allegations Qatar vehemently denies.

Threats not defined

The recent tensions in the region have come against the backdrop of Washington tightening economic sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, and trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero.

The US has also beefed up its military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to US troops and interests, but did not offer details of the nature of the threat.

Days after saying he was prepared for talks, US President Donald Trump issued a direct threat to Iran, suggesting that the Islamic republic will be destroyed if it attacks his country’s interests.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said the kingdom wanted to avert war in the region but stood ready to respond with “all strength and determination” after last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” said al-Jubeir. 

“The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, downplayed the prospect of a new war in the region, saying Tehran opposed it and no party was under the “illusion” the Islamic republic could be confronted.

“We are certain … there will not be a war since neither we want a war nor does anyone have the illusion they can confront Iran in the region,” Zarif told state-run news agency IRNA at the end of a visit to China.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

Gunmen target policemen in deadly Kabul checkpoint attack | News

Taliban fighters have stormed a police checkpoint in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, killing at least three police officers and wounding three more.

The attackers threw hand grenades before opening fire at the police in Sunday night’s attack in the Doghabad area, said Kabul police spokesperson Basir Mujahid.

Two attackers were killed in the assault, according to Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Nusrat Rahimi.

The Taliban has stepped up attacks on security installations, even as it holds direct negotiations with officials from the United States to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

The group refuses to talk to the Afghan government which it dismisses as a “US puppet”.

Fighting continues across the country with the Taliban controlling or influencing more territory than ever since its removal by US-led troops.

The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support, that trains and assists Afghan security forces in their battle against the Taliban and other groups.

Separately, a provincial official in southern Helmand province said at least seven civilians were killed and three wounded in an air attacks in Greshk district late on Sunday.

It’s unclear who carried out the attack.

According to findings from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released last month, at least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, 52.5 percent of all deaths in that period.

Casualties caused by pro-government forces – 305 deaths and 303 injuries – were up 39 percent from the same period last year.

The report singled out a sharp uptick in casualties caused by search operations, especially those carried out by Afghan intelligence service special forces, or the Khost protection force, both supported by international troops, which “appear to act with impunity outside of the governmental chain of command”.

Air operations by international forces caused 140 deaths.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

Oil-rich Venezuela runs low on fuel amid economic crisis | Venezuela News

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, yet its people are scrambling to fill car tanks, as petrol supplies dry up.

They have already faced chronic deficits in medicine, food and electricity.

But harsh US economic sanctions, and mismanagement of the oil industry, have pushed the energy sector to crisis point.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman reports the economic hub of Valencia in Venezuela.

‘Breaking the silence’: Report documents torture in Kashmir | India News

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Prisoners in Indian-administered Kashmir have been subjected to abuse and torture, including “water-boarding, sleep deprivation and sexualised torture”, according to a report by two rights bodies.

The 560-page report released on Monday mentions solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and sexualised torture including rape and sodomy, used as torture techniques against Kashmiris.

Other torture methods included electrocution, hanging from a ceiling, dunking detainees’ head in water (which is sometimes mixed with chili powder), said the report by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).

During the torture detainees were stripped naked, beaten with wooden sticks, and bodies were burned with iron rods, heaters or cigarette butts, it said.

“Muzaffer Ahmed Mirza from Tral and Manzoor Ahmad Naikoo were subjected to insertion of a rod through their rectum. It caused multiple ruptures to their internal organs,” reads one of the 432 testimonies documented in the report.

“While Mirza died after a few days in the hospital of lung rupture, Naikoo had to undergo five surgeries to finally heal the wounds he received due to this torture.

“Apart from insertion, a cloth was wrapped around Naikoo’s penis and set on fire.” 

Titled, “Torture – Indian state’s instrument of control in Indian-state of Jammu and Kashmir”, it said that more than 70 percent of the torture victims were civilians.

‘Rights violations

India has stationed more than half a million security forces in the disputed Muslim-majority region to quash an armed rebellion against its rule. Indian forces have faced criticism for excessive use of force, with the UN human rights body last year calling for an international probe into rights violations.

The UN Human Rights Chief had also called for establishing a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir.

A COI is one of the UN’s highest-level probes, generally reserved for major crises like the conflict in Syria.

Rights bodies have called for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that gives forces immunity from prosecution.

The report, which documents cases since the start of the armed rebellion in 1990s, reveals many detainees were put under behavioural coercion where they were forced into activities that were against their “religious beliefs” like rubbing piglets on their bodies or forcing them to consume alcohol.

In some cases, it said, rats were put inside victims’ trousers after soaking sugar water on their legs.

“The prisoners are forced to eat or drink filthy and harmful substances like human excreta, chili powder, dirt, gravel, chili powder mixed water, petrol, urine, and dirty water,” it said.

‘Reluctant in reporting’

The report reveals most of the civilian victims were usually reluctant to report the atrocities due to the fear of reprisals at the hands of security forces.

“Victims have been randomly picked up, tortured and never even told what they were tortured for,” it said.

In a prologue of the report, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E Mendez, said the report “will be enormously helpful in drawing attention in the international community to the need to express concern about India’s human rights record”.

‘Most underreported’

Parvez Imroz, the human rights lawyer and the president of JKCCS, told Al Jazeera that “torture is one of the massive human rights violations going on unabated in the region from last many decades”.

Arundhati Roy: Modi ‘reckless’ in Kashmir | UpFront

“This report is an effort to break the silence around this heinous crime,” he said.

The Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir state, Dilbagh Singh, rejected the torture claims.

“There are no such cases, if there have been any allegations, there are magisterial inquiries and other investigations. If they have any such case, they must tell us and we would respond to them”.

Vijay Kumar, the advisor to the governor of the restive region, said that he would comment after reading the report.

Profile of torture victims

The report said that more than half of the 432 victims suffered some form of health complications after being tortured.

“In the 432 cases studied for this report, 24 are women. Out of these 12 had been raped by Indian armed personnel,” the report says.

The torture survivors have battled with psychological issues long after their physical wounds were healed.

“Of the 432 victims, 44 suffered from some form of psychological difficulty after being subjected to torture,” it said.

A study published in 2015 by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) said that 19 percent of the population in the region suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Although India has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) since 1997, it has not ratified the treaty to date. In all three UPRs conducted by the UNHRC in 2008, 2012 and 2017, it was recommended that India ratify the convention.

In 2010, Prevention of Torture Bill was introduced in the Indian parliament but was not passed and it lapsed in 2014.

Khurram Parvez, who is also one of the researchers for the report said that “the report is a challenge to state-imposed erasure of history and memory”.

How real is the threat of another war over Kashmir?

Sri Lanka anniversary: Paying tribute to soldiers of war | Sri Lanka News

Sri Lanka has marked 10 years since the end of its long civil war in which at least 100,000 people were killed.

The conflict was marked by massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations – leaving scars that are yet to heal.

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez reports from Colombo.

Volodymyr Zelensky sworn in as Ukraine’s sixth president | News

Ukraine has sworn in comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as the war-torn country’s sixth president.

The inauguration ceremony on Monday came more than two weeks earlier than expected following the parliament’s approval of the date requested by Zelensky.

The 41-year-old announced dissolution of the parliament in his speech, a strategic move ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on October 27.

Zelensky was keen to take over the top office quickly to try to hold the key elections earlier to boost his party’s chances of securing majority at the height of his popularity.

In his speech, Zelensky also attacked the cabinet of ministers, saying he did not understand why they kept saying they could not do much to change the situation in the country.

“You can take a paper, a pen and free up your space for those who will think about the next generation instead of the next elections. I think people will appreciate that,” he said.

A resignation letter of Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak addressed to Zelensky appeared on the minister’s official website shortly after the speech. It follows the resignation of Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin and the head of National Security Council Oleksandr Turchinov.

‘Closer to people’

Zelensky, who more than three years ago played a corruption-busting president in a popular TV sitcom that shaped his image during the real-life election campaign, called on Ukrainians to share the responsibility for the the country’s future.

“From today, each of us is responsible for Ukraine, which we leave to our children. Each of us died in the Donbass, every day we lose each of us. Each of us is a migrant, a foreign worker,” said the president.

What’s next for Ukraine under comic-turned-president? (02:30)

“But we will overcome all this. We are all Ukrainians. There are no big or smaller ones. Each of us is Ukrainian. From Uzhgorod to Lugansk, from Chernigov to Simferopol, in Lviv, Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnipro and Odessa.”

Zelensky, who walked to his inauguration “to be closer to people”, said: “Throughout my life, I tried to do everything so that Ukrainians would smile. For the next five years, I will do everything so that Ukrainians do not cry.”

The president also said he would start a dialogue with Russia only after Moscow releases of the prisoners of war taken from Donbass region – a conflict zone.

The war broke out in Ukraine shortly after a pro-European uprising ousted Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovich, which prompted Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The ethnic Russian separatists seized parts of Donbass, an area in east Ukraine which includes Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people.

Zelensky defeated the outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, in the second round of presidential elections on April 21 with 73 percent of the votes.

Inside Story: Is Zelensky up to the president’s job? (25:00)

Heavy rain and flooding hit parts of the Arabian Peninsula | News

Thunderstorms kicked off across much of the southern Arabian Peninsula this weekend after hot and humid conditions in the region.

In Oman, images out of Muscat’s international airport showed very strong downpours on Sunday evening. Visibility was reduced to several hundred metres and flights were delayed while the storms moved through.

A bit further south in Oman, the town of Sur has picked up 66mm of rain in the last 48 hours. This is well above average for the month of May when the town would normally only see about 1.7mm.

The Public Authority for Civil Aviation in Oman also warned about the threat of flooding near the wadis.

Many parts of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, were flooded by the heavy rain with water levels in lower-lying areas reaching the door handles

Other parts of Yemen have reportedly been flooded as well. Flash flooding was likely in the mountainous areas.

Parts of the UAE also saw a few storms rumble through as well. Dubai and Abu Dhabi reported a quick downpour across the cities on Sunday evening, but the storms moved through quickly enough that no significant problems were reported on the roads.

Showers and thunderstorms will again develop during the heat of the day today and tomorrow over Oman and Yemen, continuing the risk for flooding.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

Dutee Chand: India’s first openly gay athlete | India News

Indian sprinter Dutee Chand has revealed she is in a same-sex relationship, becoming the first openly gay athlete in the socially conservative country. 

Chand, 23, told The Indian Express on Sunday she was in a relationship with a woman from her village in eastern Odisha state, saying she got the courage to come out after India’s top court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex last year.

“I have found someone who is my soulmate. I believe everyone should have the freedom to be with whoever they decide they want to be with,” said Chand, the fastest woman in the country.

“I’ve always supported the rights of those who want to be in a same-sex relationship. It is an individual person’s choice.”

Chand, who won two silver medals at the 2018 Asian Games, said while her focus was on upcoming international competitions, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “in the future I would like to settle down with her”. 

Chand said nobody had the right to judge her as an athlete because of her sexual orientation, which was a personal decision that should be respected.

“I have always believed that everyone should have the freedom to love. There is no greater emotion than love and it should not be denied,” she said.

She did not reveal her partner’s identity to save her from “undue attention”.

Social media users praised Chand for her courage, with prominent Indian LGBT plus rights activist Harish Iyer calling her a “beacon of hope”.

“Dutee Chand has paved the path for many, by simply standing up for herself,” he said on Twitter.

Mahima Kukreja wrote: “Dutee Chand just made it easier for a whole lot of young girls to be able to come out as queer or at least to feel more okay with their sexuality.”

Like South African Olympic athlete Caster Semenya, Chand has hyperandrogenism – a condition that naturally produces high testosterone levels.

She was previously barred from competing under International Association of Athletics Federations rules and subjected to abuse for being “unfeminine”.

But Chand won an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2015, paving the way for athletes with hyperandrogenism to compete in 100m and 200m races.

The decision allowed her to run in the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. 

However, the CAS this month rejected a similar appeal by Semenya against rules requiring middle distance female athletes with a high testosterone level to take medication to reduce it.

Chand told local media the ruling made her “very sad”.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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