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Sat 17 August 2019
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Faisal Khan on why the BJP Prime Minister’s win in India’s general election is concerning for minorities in the world’s largest democracy.

India has just concluded the largest democratic election in history.

In a mammoth exercise of participatory democracy, votes were cast over five-and-a-half weeks and in seven phases to accommodate India’s close to 900 million eligible voters.

Approximately 600 million people voted, with Narendra Modi being reinstated as Prime Minister.

Despite a mixed record on the economy – unemployment is at its highest rate in 45 years – increased persecution of India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a failure to deliver on some of his key promises, Modi’s victory was historic.

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an impressive 352 seats out of 543 in the lower house of Parliament (The Lok Sabha), breaking its own record of 336 in 2014.

Modi’s overwhelming win has likely sent the historically dominant Congress Party into an existential crisis.

His principal opponent, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, did not even retain his own seat in his family bastion of Amethi. The Congress Party lost 174 of 188 seats where it went head-to-head with the BJP.

His phenomenal electoral success, however, represents a terrifying outcome for India’s minorities.

An early consensus seems to have developed on the main reasons for Modi’s victory.

As Dhruva Jaishankar, an analyst at research organisation Brookings India, told me: “It appears to be a combination of several factors: the lack of a clear alternative, the perception of Modi as personally not corrupt, better delivery of public goods and services through social welfare schemes, a perception of being strong on national security and leadership, a well-organised and well-financed party machinery, and a Hindu nationalist social and cultural agenda.”

For Michael Kugelman, of the Wilson Centre, although India is in many respects in a “far worse place now than it was in 2014… Modi was elected because of Modi”.

“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “His great popularity allowed his party to triumph despite its many vulnerabilities… Modi has a tremendous appeal that is rooted in his humble background and powerful oratory.”

Some simple yet effective welfare schemes – such as loans to build concrete houses, the construction of 100 million toilets (the Indian Government is close to reaching this target), electrification, an agricultural initiative that transferred 2,000 rupees into the bank accounts of poor farmers – may have swayed many voters and reinforced Modi’s image as a man of the people.


Anti-Muslim Hate

Modi joined the BJP in 1987.

In 1995, the party won a majority in the state of Gujarat and Modi rose rapidly through its ranks becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001.

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party which espouses a Hindutva or Hindu supremacist world view.

Its parent organisation is the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), for whom Modi apparently worked in his earlier years. The RSS’ revered chief, Guru Golwalkar, wrote in a 1939 book that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging itself of the “Semitic races”.

It was an alleged member of the RSS who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on the basis that he was a ‘Muslim lover’.

It was members of the BJP who encouraged Hindu nationalist mobs to attack and tear down the medieval Babri Mosque in 1992 in the town of Ayodhya. The demolition of the Babri Masjid triggered religious riots that continued for over a month. More than 1,000 were killed in India’s worst religious riots since it gained independence from the British in 1947.

Political representation of Muslims has decreased substantially, Muslim immigrants have been targeted, and Modi’s recent electoral campaign was littered with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In 2002, with Modi in charge, Gujarat witnessed one of modern India’s biggest pogroms.

After an incident between Hindu pilgrims and local Muslims passing through Gujarat from Ayodhya, Hindu mobs rampaged across the state in revenge, pillaging, murdering and raping Muslims over some weeks. Anywhere between one to two thousand people were killed. Muslim businesses were destroyed and thousands rendered homeless.

A Human Rights Watch report concluded that the state authorities and the local police were complicit in the carnage.

A senior police officer and minister, killed in 2003, claimed that Modi explicitly instructed civil servants and police not to stand in the killers’ way. Modi denies this.

He has never apologised for his failure to protect a minority. Instead, he compared the revenge killings to accidentally running over a puppy.

In 2012, one of Modi’s former ministers, Maya Kodnani, was sentenced to 28 years in prison alongside 30 others for their role in the riots. The US also denied Modi a visa on the grounds of religious intolerance and the British authorities ordered a boycott (that lasted 10 years). The EU also informally boycotted him.  

Despite all of this, Modi has continued with his anti-Muslim hate.

In his first term as Prime Minister, the day-to-day persecution of India’s 195 million Muslims intensified.

The lynching of Muslims for the pettiest of reasons, such as cattle trading or eating beef, has become a common occurrence in Modi’s India. A report by news organisation India Spend found that “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) – and they comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97% of these attacks were reported after Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014”.

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The political representation of Muslims has decreased substantially, Muslim immigrants have been targeted, and Modi’s recent electoral campaign was littered with anti-Muslim rhetoric – with Muslims often being referred to as “termites”, “infiltrators” and “outsiders” – and a promise to build a Hindu temple at the site of the Babri Mosque.

According to the CNN, 20% of all candidates elected last week have criminal cases pending. These cases are not for minor misdemeanours and include murder and attempted murder. Pragya Singh Thakur of the BJP is one of these.

Thakur, a Hindu priestess, was charged under a terror law for conspiring and carrying out the 2008 bomb blasts in a Muslim-majority city in the state of Maharashtra that left 10 people dead. On the campaign trail, she also celebrated Gandhi’s murderer as a ‘hero’.


Condemnation of Modi’s Re-Election

As Michael Kugelman told me, Modi now has a “fresh mandate for economic reform and to continue his Hindu nationalist agenda. Given the latter risks increasing communal violence and instability, there may be a contradiction between pushing for reforms and growth, while also advancing a polarising social agenda. How Modi addresses this conundrum will be an early test for him.”

In the foreign policy sphere, it is likely – as Dhruva Jaishankar argues – that “on Kashmir, we will continue to see a hardening of the counter-terrorism agenda; on Pakistan, India has a daunting task to alter Pakistan’s behaviour, particularly its support for terrorist groups. This will require continuing to isolate it internationally while offering some avenues of engagement… but I don’t see the new Government readily easing up on the pressure.” Modi will also aim to get closer to the US, in order to isolate Pakistan and counterbalance China.

His phenomenal electoral success, however, represents a terrifying outcome for India’s minorities, especially its Muslims, and has received condemnation from several quarters.

Modi’s overwhelming win has likely sent the historically dominant Congress Party into an existential crisis.

US congresswoman Ilhan Omar, for example, tweeted: ‘PM Modi’s rule in India has corresponded with the spread of violent Hindu nationalism and hate crimes against Muslims”.

The Guardian published a scathing editorial arguing that the “landslide win for Mr Modi will see India’s soul lost to a dark politics – one that views almost all of Indian Muslims as second-class citizens”.

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who after observing Modi closely for more than 10 years concludes: “The defining idea of Narendra Modi’s landslide victory is Hinduvta, the ideology that defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. That could assert itself toward a dangerous conclusion in the next five years if left unchecked.”

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