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Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated during a public meeting in support of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Uttara Kannada seat Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri for the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections, in Uttara Kannada on Sunday. Image Credit: ANI

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied on Monday that his country was sliding towards autocracy, following accusations that his government orchestrated criminal probes to weaken rivals ahead of an ongoing general election.

Modi, 73, remains resoundingly popular after a decade in office, and he is widely expected to win a third term when the six-week-long national polls conclude in June.

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His prospects have been further bolstered by several criminal investigations into opponents, including a tax probe that in February froze the bank accounts of Congress, India’s largest opposition party.

But Modi said the suggestion India was becoming “an electoral autocracy” under his rule was a fiction spread by his disgruntled rivals.

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“Because the opposition is not able to get power, they start defaming India on the world stage,” he told the Times of India newspaper in an interview published Monday.

“They spread canards about our people, our democracy and our institutions.”

This year Modi is being challenged by a motley alliance of more than two dozen political parties, several of whom have leaders either under investigation or in jail facing criminal charges.

Modi’s chief opponent Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of past Indian prime ministers, was briefly disqualified from parliament last year after being convicted of criminal libel.

The 53-year-old faces numerous other active criminal cases, several of which were brought by members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Gandhi and his Congress party already lost two prior landslide elections to Modi, who told the newspaper that his opponent’s unpopularity had no bearing on the robustness of India’s democratic institutions.

“India does not become an electoral autocracy if the ‘Yuvraj’ cannot automatically get power,” Modi said, using the Hindi word for “prince” to disparage Gandhi’s upbringing as a political dynast.

‘Unprecedented display of love’

Turnout in India’s election has so far been several percentage points lower than the last poll in 2019.

Indian media outlets have speculated that higher-than-average temperatures were to blame, with parts of the country remaining subject to a heatwave alert.

Analysts also say voter enthusiasm has been dampened because of the widespread expectations that Modi’s party will easily win the vote.

Modi told the newspaper he remained confident that the BJP and its allies would secure more than 400 seats in India’s 543-seat parliament, its best-ever total.

“Everywhere I have gone, I have seen an unprecedented display of love, affection and support,” he said.

Inheritance tax cannot remove inequality: Modi

Taxing people’s inheritance cannot address inequality and has “never removed poverty”, Modi told the newspaper, alleviating fears that such a tax could be imposed if he returns to power after the elections.

Inheritance tax and wealth tax have become key campaign issues in the world’s largest election with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition Congress accusing each other of being in favour of such taxes.

Terming such taxes “dangerous problems disguised as solutions”, Modi said that they have never been successful and have only distributed wealth “so that everyone is equally poor”.

“I do not think they are solutions by any stretch of the imagination ... These policies sow discord and block every road to equity, they create hatred and destabilise the economic as well as social fabric of a nation,” he said.

Campaigning in India’s elections has heated up after the first phase of polling on April 19. Modi has accused Congress of favouring minority Muslims and aiming to dilute affirmative action while the opposition party has said Modi fears losing and was using divisive language to distract voters from real issues such as unemployment, rising prices and rural distress.

The third of the seven phases of voting is set for May 7.