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POSTED AT 02:50 PM 21-01-2019

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Leaders of India’s main Opposition parties join their hands together during “United India” rally ahead of the general election, in Kolkata, India - REUTERS​

KOLKATA, India (Reuters): India’s main opposition parties joined forces against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday at a rally which attracted hundreds of thousands of people, months ahead of elections.

The 23 regional groups said they forged a common front to stop Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which beat the main opposition Congress and regional parties in 2014.

Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal, speaks during “United India” rally attended by the leaders of India’s main opposition parties ahead of the general election, in Kolkata, India - REUTERS

Rural anger over weak farm prices and sluggish job creation mean Modi’s BJP faces a tough challenge to stay in power after electoral losses in three key states last month.

Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Kolkata from rural Bengal for the rally, bringing disruption to the city.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called on regional party leaders to join a single platform to defeat the ‘anti-people’ Government of Modi, which the 64 year-old said was “nearing its end”.

A poll last month by ABP News forecast Modi’s party could fall about 25 seats short of a majority in national elections, and Banerjee is among the few opposition leaders who could emerge as a prime ministerial candidate if the BJP loses.

Regional parties hold the key as they dominate the eastern states of West Bengal, Odisha, and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which together send 161 members to the 543 constituencies of Parliament’s lower house.

Missing from Saturday’s line-up was main Opposition Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and leaders of the left parties, reflecting tensions among opposition parties on who would be their prime ministerial candidate against Modi.

Gandhi sent his representatives and a letter of support.


Focus on Jobs

After the formation of a strong alliance between Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) last week in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the lower house, Modi’s party faces a risk of losing elections, Banerjee said.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Modi had failed to fulfil his promises, including job creation.

“Modi had promised to create 20 million jobs a year but after a faulty launch of national sales tax and demonetisation in 2016, more than 10 million jobs were lost,” he said.

India’s unemployment rate hit 7.4% in December, the highest in 15 months, while the number of people employed fell by nearly 11 million from a year ago, a report by the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said this month.

Politicians at the rally, whose organisers said was attended by more than a million people, said India’s growth had slowed during Modi’s term and their first priority was to defeat him, adding a replacement would be decided after the elections. The BJP dismissed the prospects of an opposition alliance, questioning who would lead such a coalition.

Modi is expected to detail a package worth more than 1 trillion INR ($14 billion) in his last budget on 1 February, including benefits for farmers and other taxpayers.