India: A rude awakening in an election year

Dr Shashi Tharoor, the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, once described Narendra Modi as a paradoxical Prime Minister who says one thing and does another.

Coming into power in 2014 on egalitarian slogans like “ache din aane wale hain” (good days are coming) and “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (togetherness with all and development for all), Modi appealed to the corporate and middle class groups who were already beginning to resent the Congress Party, which was plagued with a series of corruption scandals. Posturing as the “development visionary” while presiding as Gujarat’s Chief Minister (2001-2014), he was fielded as the best candidate who could fix India’s decaying economy and good governance.

This clearly was not the case, as the reckless almost overnight demonetization had a drastic impact, particularly on lower income groups.

The promise of good days is far from being realised. For the religious minorities that make up approximately 16.3% of the population the last five years have been anything but favourable.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has taken full opportunity to bring about a paradigm shift to influence the national conscience, driven by its Hindutva agenda. Hindutva refers to a politically extreme, nationalist interpretation of Hinduism, which, in practice, seeks to preserve and defend the cultural hegemony of Hinduism at the expense of minority religions. Over the last five years the RSS propaganda machine has been successful in using every opportunity to reinforce this ideology.  

India’s intellectual spaces have begun to experience intervention by the RSS. Any form of dissent or attempt to question the view of the BJP or the RSS is framed as a threat to national integrity, which has led to the loss of several lives along the way, including eminent Indian writers Govind Pansare, M. M Kalbugi and Gauri Lankesh. Open hostility and violence towards Christians and Muslims have become a frequent occurrence, as the cult of hatred has infiltrated a society where the state acts directly in its own corporate interest.

The propagandists’ conclusion – that there is a conspiracy against the Hindu, has successfully emboldened Hindu extremists to act with impunity against Muslims and Christians.

As voting is underway, with approximately 879 million registered Indians set to go to the polls through April and May, India faces a decisive moment over its secular future. Yet, the BJP-RSS combo has continued with its traditional campaign style of communal polarisation at the expense of sacrificing national unity to win the election.

This time, posturing himself as “chowkidar” (watchman) on his campaign trail, Modi has been playing the “religion-nationalism” card, pitting the Hindu majority India against its Muslim majority neighbour, Pakistan. He stresses that in order for India’s interests to be safeguarded, the watchman must come back to govern. Needless to say that the India-Pakistan tensions have also been at the instigation of Pakistan, but the BJP-RSS combo have been effectively using “nationalism” to create a narrative of intolerance.

Modi’s ‘watchman,’ also risks fuelling vigilantism, as seen in the phenomenon of lynchings on account of killings of cows which has been unprecedented.

The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva firebrand and member of the BJP, described the Indian army as “Modiji ki sena” (Army of Modi) at a recent election rally in Ghaziabad. He went on to say that the army under Modi will treat terrorists with bullets and bombs, unlike the Congress Party who would treat the Pakistanis with biriyani. Piling in on this, Yogi Adityanath also referred to the Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi as suffering from a “green virus” (to imply that he was courting Muslim voters) when Gandhi recently filed his nomination papers in Wayanad, Kerala. Examples such as this reveal a concerning willingness to capitalise on nationalist sentiments and religious intolerance as a means of political point-scoring.

Meanwhile, at a gathering in Rajasthan last year, BJP President Amit Shah promised to deport every single illegal immigrant if his party won the 2019 election, referring to Bangladeshi migrants as ‘termites’ who have entered the country and should be uprooted. Once again, soon after the BJP released its 2019 manifesto on 8 April, which included plans to introduce a ‘National Register for Citizens’ (NRC), Amit Shah tweeted that the BJP will purge all infiltrators except “Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” This indicates the BJP’s intention of erasing certain religious minorities from the narrative of modern India; while some groups like Buddhists and Sikhs enjoy a degree of tolerance, Christians and Muslims are viewed as ‘un-Indian.’

Unique only to the north eastern state of Assam, the NRC was put in place in 1951, which registered all Indian citizens in order to distinguish undocumented migrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). However, after the secession in 1971, millions of refugees crossed over to Assam.

Shah’s vindictive rhetoric echoes that of past politicians in India, who fuelled hatred and engineered mass violence through their virulent speech for political ends.

Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, who was responsible for orchestrating the Malegaon blast which killed six people and injured over 100 in Maharashtra in 2008, was nominated as a candidate in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh for the Lok Sabha (parliamentary) seat. This is despite the fact that, Thakur is on bail for health reasons and is yet to stand trial for stirring communal tensions and murder. It is puzzling that the BJP’s 2019 manifesto promises to wipe out terrorism but has endorsed a candidate for the elections who has previously been accused of terrorism. Modi handpicked Thakur, even though he had previously said that it was an unforgivable sin to link a 5000-year old civilisation with terror.

The major challengers to the Modi regime, including the Congress Party, have been forced on the back foot, offering few reassurances in party manifestos or leaders’ speeches for religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, regarding their future as equal citizens. This is a dangerous trend.

Religious minorities, who constitute a fifth of the 1.3 billion population, rely on constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion or belief to anchor their citizenship. Any threat that this will be eroded, diluted or tampered with in any form then becomes a real and present threat to their identity, perhaps their lives.

It is with this in mind that the 2019 general elections are being seen by many as a make or break referendum on whether India will continue to remain a secular democratic republic as desired by its founding fathers, in particular Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad.

By CSW’s South Asia Team Leader

Click here to read our previous posts in the lead up to India’s general elections, The politics of religious conversion in pursuit of a Hindu Rashtra and The church in Jharkhand under direct attack by the state government.