Indian PM Narendra Modi steps up assault on opponents, eyes Indian supremacy

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to cast his vote for the country's next President, at the Parliament House in New Delhi, India, on July 17, 2017.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to cast his vote for the country's next President, at the Parliament House in New Delhi, India, on July 17, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling alliance is stepping up its assault on the opposition Congress party as it looks to expand its national dominance and moves closer to securing a majority in the upper House of Parliament.

Modi won the biggest mandate in 30 years in the 2014 general election, giving him control of the lower House. But his nationalist coalition still lacks a majority in the upper House that represents India's 29 states and has proven to be a stumbling block for its legislative agenda.

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been chipping away at that problem. It recently won the backing of some opposition lawmakers to secure the election of its candidate Ram Nath Kovind as president.

The party also joined a coalition in the big northern state of Bihar, in the process demolishing an opposition alliance that had dealt it its only major election defeat since 2014.

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With Bihar, Modi gained 10 more upper- House seats. That brings his nationalist alliance's tally to 89 seats - still short of, but increasingly within reach of, a simple majority of 123 seats.

Now, the BJP has turned its attention to a fight that could increase its strength in the upper house and deal Congress another blow.

BJP President Amit Shah and another Modi loyalist are running for re-election to the upper House from Gujarat, the prime minister's western home state. They are also aiming for a third seat from the state, held by Ahmed Patel, Congress President Sonia Gandhi's closest aide, for the past 24 years.

Wresting away Patel's seat could finally consign to the history books an era in which the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of the Congress party produced three Indian prime ministers.

"If her main man can't get the support of Congress, it means that Sonia Gandhi's grip over the party is gone," Rajdeep Sardesai, a leading television anchor and Modi biographer, told Reuters.

Patel was not available for comment. "The results of the Gujarat election will prove that Congress is broken, dismantled and they have nothing to offer to their members and to the country," said Bhupender Yadav, the BJP's national general secretary. "We are in the best possible scenario."

Half a dozen Congress lawmakers from the state have defected ahead of the Aug 8 vote in which they will elect three upper House members.

In response, the Congress evacuated more than 40 of its lawmakers from Gujarat to a golf hotel outside the southern city of Bengaluru. They are at the Eagleton country club, which bills itself "a luxury country club and world-class resort".

Shankar Sinh Vagela, one defector, derided Congress as a"rudderless ship" unable to win elections. "Discontent has been simmering for a long time, but no one from Congress headquarters was paying attention," he said.

Responding, Congress spokesman Shaktisinh Gohil said the BJP doesn't "realise that this is a battle of ideology".