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Indian activist Partha Chaudhary is on war footing as he walks out of the regional headquarters of the ruling BJP in Kolkata, armed with enthusiasm and pages of voter lists.

“We need to meet every BJP supporter, and all this has to be done in less than 300 days,” the 39-year-old man told a group of fellow activists heading towards Kolkata, the northern riverbank capital. West Bengal is home to approximately 15 million people.

“We want people to remember that the BJP had knocked on their doors long before any opposition party worker.”

Chaudhary and his team are among an army of 18,000 volunteers campaigning across India ahead of next year’s national elections. Their mission is to meet face-to-face with about 35 million BJP supporters, or about 2,000 each, by January.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the world’s largest political party with 180 million members, is betting on the biggest voter contact campaign in history to secure a third term in power in the world’s most populous country.

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Its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, remains enduringly popular among Indians after nearly a decade of bringing political stability, investing in infrastructure, and supporting welfare reforms and national security.

Despite voters’ concerns about inflation, unemployment and uneven development, opinion polls suggest the right-wing BJP will easily win a third term in federal elections in April and May.

However, this is no sure thing: growing anti-incumbency sentiment is conspiring with a newly formed national alliance of 26 opposition parties, including arch-rival Congress, in what BJP officials say will be Modi’s toughest test yet.

“For once, we are now seeing a united opposition,” said Tamoghana Ghosh, a senior BJP functionary who is campaigning in Kolkata. “They may be devoid of a shared political ideology or vision, but their determination to defeat Modi cannot be ignored.”

While Modi and his party insist that they rule for all Indians, their emphasis on their Hindu faith and culture has unsettled some members of minority groups who feel politically excluded, especially Muslims who constitute 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.

An internal report produced by researchers in February has prompted BJP leaders in New Delhi to take action, concluding that the anti-incumbency vote could cause the party to lose about 34 of its 303 MLAs in the lower house of parliament. This may cause the party to lose its position. Three senior party officials told Reuters the majority gives it a free hand to pass the law.

BJP national president JP Nadda, who is leading the grassroots mobilization campaign, said, “This time we will have to win in unknown areas as retaining all the existing seats for the third consecutive time will be a challenge.”

In a conversation with Reuters, Nadda and six other senior BJP figures outlined previously unreported details of the project – internally dubbed the “Big Outreach” – which they said would be a departure from its 2014 and 2019 election strategies. There is a change that focuses more on large campaign rallies across the country. ,

According to Nalin Mehta, dean of the UPES School of Modern Media in Uttarakhand and author of the book “The New BJP”, this will not be an easy task, or free from risk. He said grassroots mobilization, coupled with an online campaign, 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 maintain enthusiasm among its workers after two terms in power,” Mehta said.

“The party’s grassroots cadre-building goes hand-in-hand with the creation of a massive digital footprint as well as industrial-scale use of social media.”

‘BJP will not be lucky for the third time’

The BJP’s outreach began in the summer, much earlier than its previous campaigns when mobilization began about four months before the national elections.

According to party officials, the campaign is not focused on wooing voters from rival parties, but will instead directly reach out to those who voted for the BJP in 2019 to drum up their support, campaigning for them. To obtain assistance and provide intelligence on local issues.

The first phase, which is scheduled to end in early October, targets 134 priority constituencies with Hindu-majority populations, where they were lost by slim margins in 2014 and 2019.

“There is a need for energetic intervention on these seats and insulation of the existing vote share,” Nadda said. He said that in the second phase ending in January, workers will visit all the 303 seats that the party had won four years ago.

“This time, the world’s largest party has launched its biggest campaign ever to win the world’s biggest election.”

Mahua Moitra, national MLA of regional opposition All India Trinamool Congress, is not impressed. He said the strong outreach efforts reflect 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 a state of panic and that is forcing them to set up a taskforce to meet voters a year before the elections,” he said. “They won’t be third time lucky.”

Moitra is an MP from Krishnanagar in West Bengal, a state in India’s far east where Muslims constitute about a quarter of the population. Many voters there are angry with the BJP, fearing that its brand of Hindu nationalism has marginalized minorities and hindered their economic progress.

Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the rival Congress party, said the alliance of 26 regional parties may not have the ruling financial strength to launch a similar grassroots campaign, but the alliance has mustered a broad enough opposition base to oust Modi.

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“BJP’s grassroots workers can gather intelligence or persuade voters, but they will not be able to win the 2024 elections,” he said.

Kolkata: Cradle of Renaissance

Not so, says BJP leader Nadda, who says politicians should keep their ear to the ground.

Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is a city of deep historical, strategic and political importance. Long a trading center for commodities such as jute and tea, it was once the center of British power in India and the cradle of the intellectual and artistic renaissance that arose in the 18th century.

Kolkata North, where he and his group are campaigning, is a prime example of the ruling party targeting an early priority seat, as well as the problems the BJP is facing at the national level.

The BJP was defeated by a regional opposition party four years ago, even though it enjoyed strong support there, garnering only about 600,000 votes out of the total 15 lakh votes.

However, Partha Chaudhary, an ophthalmologist by profession, has a clear vision as he walks through streets filled with crumbling 300-year-old architectural heritage from the bygone colonial era.

Their first stop is a tin-shed shop in a slum surrounded by Victorian-era houses that have seen better days, where they introduce themselves to a bare-chested shopkeeper who is placing oil in a pan and Kneading dough for frying samosas.

“Please tell us, big brother, what can we do to make your life better?” Choudhary asked the shopkeeper and also marked the man’s name in his voter list.

He speaks enthusiastically about the many reforms initiated by the federal government to improve the lives of the urban poor since Modi came to power in 2014.

Chaudhary delivered a mantra that he would repeat in front of more than 20 voters over the next three hours: “We know you vote for the BJP and we are here to understand what we need to do to win this seat in 2024.” should do.”

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