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Forty countries – from India, the UK and the US to Russia and South Africa – are headed for national elections in 2024, in a highly sensitive geopolitical environment that has not been seen before. Europe is marching to the right, the US could well go the same way.
India, which will have its general elections by May, is the world’s the largest democracy, will it too swing further to the right towards an electoral autocracy as many critics claim, or will its people reclaim its pluralist democracy?
The ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, in coalition with parties of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), defeating the grand old Indian National Congress (INC) and its allies of United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In 2019 the BJP-led-NDA won a landslide victory with 353 seats in Lok Sabha (lower house) while reducing the Congress-led-UPA to a mere 91 seats.
Since the BJP came to power, it has held sway over northern states while the southern states have shown a trend towards Congress and Opposition victories during recent state elections, indicating a growing division between the north and the south.
Riding high on its recent victories, the BJP is readying itself for an extravaganza on 22 January – the inauguration of the Lord Rama Temple in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Given the timing of the event, so close to the elections, it is thought that the temple opening is likely to be used to further garner the Hindu vote which could lead to a highly polarised and divisive election.
In the 10 years of BJP rule, India has seen a conscious rise in religious hatred, where majoritarianism and the Hindutva ideology is reigning supreme. The BJP’s rise began since the demolition of the 16th-Century Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. In 1990, a political and religious rally tour was started by the then BJP President LK Advani named the Ram Janabhoomi Rath Yatra (Chariot procession) from Gujarat, where the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then chief minister, to Ayodhya, which culminated in an ugly takedown of the mosque by members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation of which BJP is the political wing, alongside its affiliates like Vishwa Hindu Parishad which is a member of RSS and Bajrang Dal, its aggressive youth wing. More than 2,000 people were killed in the nationwide riots that followed, predominantly Muslims.
The nationalist promise was to build a magnificent Lord Rama temple in Ayodhya on the grounds of the 460-year-old mosque where Muslims had offered prayers for generations. Hindus have long believed it to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. According to the mosque’s inscriptions, it was built by Mughal emperor Babur in 1528-29. However, in 1949 Hindus placed idols of Lord Rama inside the mosque, following which no Muslim prayers were ever offered.
In 2010 the Allahabad High Court upheld the claim that the mosque was built on the spot believed to be Lord Rama’s birthplace and awarded the site of the central dome for the construction of the temple while noting that the excavated structure underneath it was not Islamic in nature. In 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the land be handed over to a trust to oversee the construction of a Hindu temple and ordered a separate piece of land to be given to the Muslims.
Behind the BJP’s religio-cultural rhetoric, there have always been clever political calculations. In 2000, the then BJP leader, the late Sushma Swaraj admitted that the Rama Jnambhoomi movement was ‘purely political in nature and had nothing to do with religion.’ Could this Ayodhya event be the final war cry leading to the RSS-BJP dream project of a Hindu Rashtra (nation), destroying the country’s pluralistic democracy woven intricately over the past 75 years?
In the lead-up to 22 January, right-wing organisations have been mobilising their forces to ask for donations for the temple and use the Rama temple card for vote gains. Leaders of VHP have said the temple will be the symbol of Hindutva like the Vatican and Mecca. Modi has asked citizens to celebrate the event as if it was Diwali. But the event and the involvement of the Prime Minister and his party has been fraught with controversy. Opposition leaders have turned down invitations to the consecration ceremony calling it a political event of RSS and BJP.
Some of the Shankaracharyas (head priests) of the four main Hindu religious centres have also refused to attend, as they believe it is a political event and not a religious or spiritual one. They have pointed out that the temple, which is still not complete, cannot have the consecration of its deity, and that the hurry to do so is a clear indication that the BJP wants to capitalise on it for electoral advantage. Clearly Hinduism (the religion) is calling out Hindutva (the political ideology).
Religious hatred has seen an increase since 2014. Cases of lynching Muslims and lower caste Hindus by right-wing mobs on the slightest suspicion have risen. The concept of ‘love-jihad’ has been used to beat and even kill inter-religious couples. For the past eight months, the BJP-ruled north-eastern state of Manipur has been burning due to religious clashes and killings between the Hindu Metei and Christian Kuki Zo communities. Churches have been burnt down, in May two Kuki Zo women were raped and paraded naked on the roads by Meteis. Despite such carnage its chief minister has not been removed.
“The BJP Government’s discriminatory and divisive policies have led to increased violence against minorities, creating a pervasive environment of fear and a chilling effect on Government critics,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Amidst all this, on 14 January, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi embarked on a socio-political rally tour that promises to stir the soul of the nation, calling it Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. Significantly, he began this journey, which will cover 6,713 km from east to west, from Manipur. He will end the journey in Mumbai, on 20 March, covering a total of 355 Lok Sabha seats. A year ago, Gandhi walked 4,080 km from Kanyakumari in the south to Kashmir in the north.
Amidst communal tension, regional disparities, and rising unemployment, Gandhi’s call is for unity and justice. Will it have any electoral dividends for Congress? After all, he will go through the densely populated, BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, which boasts of 80 Lok Sabha seats. He has untiringly stood against what he calls RSS’s divisive politics. To further frustrate Modi’s march towards a third term 28 parties with Congress have formed INDIA- Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.
The mainstream media – termed as ‘godi media’ (lapdog media) – has almost blacked out the entire opposition, so its public reach must be through alternate methods. The Government’s autocratic stance is visible in the curbing of the media, NGOs, and even comedians. Several Government policies are targeting academics who refuse to promote Hindu nationalism in the classroom and in their research. There is a steady introduction of the right-wing agenda in the education curriculum of schools. After months of suspension, the Home Ministry has cancelled the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration of the globally renowned public research institute, Centre for Policy Research. Indeed, according to the V-Dem Institute, one of the leading measures of democracy, India now ranks in the bottom 10-20% on its Academic Freedom Index.
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Also, for the first time, the Indian Parliament saw the suspension of 141 MPs during last month’s crucial Winter Session of Parliament – 95 from Lok Sabha and 46 from the upper house, Rajya Sabha, for demanding a debate on a Parliament security breach on 13 December. The opposition called it a “mockery of democracy” as, after their suspension, important draconian bills were passed without any debate, undermining parliamentary democracy.
The current buzz in India is that the Ayodhya extravaganza will indeed further bolster the BJP’s chances of sweeping the forthcoming 543-seat-Lok Sabha elections. The danger is that an absolute majority for a single party in a multiparty democracy could precipitate a swift slide to authoritarianism. Can INDIA stop this from happening? Or will religious majoritarianism trump economy and development?
Geopolitically, India is a critically important player given the tensions between China, Russia and the West. But, as is expected after 22 January, the toxic mix of religion and politics in the run-up to the elections could create an electoral autocracy at a time when the world needs a vibrant, confident, pluralist Indian democracy.