Voting is underway in full swing in the world’s largest democracy. Around 900 million Indians are partaking in an election exercise that many believe may also hold a referendum on India’s secular future, ruptured as the nation is, along dangerous religious and sectarian lines.
In 2014, when prime minister Narendra Modi, then the muscular chief minister of Gujarat asked the country for votes, he did so on the plank of development, promising to modernise India’s moribund economy and take everyone along with him on the path to progress (sabka saath, sabka vikas). Given his antecedents as a full-time pracharak (campaigner) of the RSS, a right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary outfit regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the subtext of Modi’s campaign, even then, was religious.
But five years, and an array of failed economic promises later, as he seeks another mandate from the people of India, religion is no longer just the undertone. Hindutva posturing and brazen Islamophobia, it would seem to many, have become the primary drivers of the BJP’s campaign.
Below are five reprehensible decisions/statements made by BJP leaders on the campaign trail over the last month that bear out the contention that stoking fear and spreading anti-Muslim bigotry have in fact become the key building blocks upon which the BJP has mounted its election strategy in 2019.
Fielding a terror accused
This, as journalist and novelist Indrajit Hazra wrote in the Times of India signaled that the BJP had officially “crossed over into the domain of sanctioned communalism.”
While the Election Commission rules in India don’t prohibit someone like Pragya Singh Thakur, accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts that killed 6 and injured over 100 from contesting polls, nominating a deeply polarising figure who is yet to stand trial for murder, criminal conspiracy and communal violence proves that the BJP has given up all pretense of progressive politics.
It is probably for the first time in the history of India that a person accused of terrorism has received such barefaced endorsement from the prime minister himself. Defending the decision to back her, Modi in an interview called Thakur a saint and said her ticket was an answer to those who branded 5,000 years of culture as terrorism.
Thakur of course has been emboldened by these blessings, making one incendiary comment after another. After claiming to have ‘cursed’ a police officer who was martyred in the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, she blustered about climbing atop the Babri Masjid, (a mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992 which led to subsequent rioting across the country and killing, by some estimates, 2000 people), to help demolish it and make way for a “grand” Ram mandir (temple), a stated promise in the BJP’s manifesto.
Purge infiltrators “except Buddha, Hindus, and Sikhs”
This was a proclamation from the country’s second most powerful man Amit Shah, President of the BJP. Though technically aimed at rooting out illegal migrants, the suggestion that people should be expelled on the basis of their religion was evidently an euphemism for hounding out Muslims in particular and other non-Indic religious faiths such as Christians that make up the Indian ethnic tapestry.
Shah promised to do so by creating a national citizen’s registry or the NRC, a controversial plan that first gained ground in the north eastern state of Assam but has been delayed subsequently because of fears that it could put the citizenship of an estimated 4 million people, particularly Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam at risk.
Muslims as “the green virus,” “termites”
Attacking the opposition Congress party in an election rally, the saffron-clad chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, alleged that the grand old party of India had been infected by a ”green virus”. He was making a reference to Congress president Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination papers from the Wayanad constituency in Kerala where he said only green flags were seen to be flying.
“You might have seen Rahul Gandhi’s nomination rally at one of the seats in Kerala, there was only greenery visible there. Congress flag was nowhere to be seen. Congress is suffering from this green virus, it has got infected by it”, he said, referring to Muslim voters being courted by Gandhi.
The comments led to India’s election commission banning the yogi from campaigning for three days.
His comments were preceded by BJP president Amit Shah referring to illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites”. He even vowed to throw them into the Bay of Bengal after coming to power.
Maneka Gandhi’s ominous warning
Urging voters for support, wheedling them with promises and even inducing them with alcohol and other goodies during the campaign period have been common features of the Indian elections. But openly threatening them with consequences if they don’t vote in favor of a said contestant hasn’t.
Until earlier this month, when Maneka Gandhi, the BJP’s candidate from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh told a primarily Muslim gathering during a rally that she would know if they didn’t vote for her from the voting patterns of neighboring constituencies that were also dominated by Muslim voters.
“When the election comes and this booth throws up 100 votes or 50 votes, and then you come to me for work we will see,” Gandhi said, adding that Muslims who did not vote for her should not expect any help from her.
The Election Commission issued a show-cause notice to Gandhi on those comments, but that didn’t stop her from announcing that in Pilibhit, where her son Varun was contesting on a BJP ticket, she would grade villages as A, B, C and D based on the number of votes she gets and prioritise development work accordingly.
“Want to Destroy Muslims?”
But Ranjeet Bahadur Srivastava who spewed this vitriol didn’t stop at that. He further went on to add that after the Lok Sabha elections, “the party will bring machines from China to shave 10-12 thousand Muslims and later force them to adopt Hindu religion.”
Addressing a crowd at Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, he urged them to vote for the BJP or else, “get ready to face consequences.”
Under Modi’s reign between 2014-2019, India saw a dangerous wave of hyper-nationalism sweep through the country. Critics were branded anti-national. Self-appointed vigilantes lynched Muslim men on mere suspicions of slaughtering cows, held sacred to the Hindu faith. Terms such as “love jihad” were bandied about by fringe Hindu groups with impunity, suggesting that interfaith relationships between Muslim men & Hindu women were in fact a sinister ploy at mass conversion by the minority community. Islamic figures were obliterated from History books. And sadhus, monks & spiritual gurus were enfranchised to a point where the lines between state and church blurred sharply.
Yet, as the campaigning hits fever pitch, the level to which Modi’s party-men (and women) have ratcheted up the communal card has caught many by surprise. To political observers, this only points to one harsh fact. With a grave job’s crisis, simmering distress in agriculture and a deepening industrial slowdown, Modi can ill persuade voters to vote for him on the promise of “achhe din” (good days) as he did 5 years ago. And so, a more intense variety of communal polarization that deflects attention from the real issues and stokes fear and hate is an old trick he’s being compelled to pull.
Will it work? We’ll know on May 23.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.