Stoking division to win India’s elections comes at a cost

Stoking division to win India’s elections comes at a cost

Stoking division to win India’s elections comes at a cost
BJP partisans attend an election campaign rally of India's PM Narendra Modi in Amritsar on May 30, 2024. (AFP)
Short Url

India’s lengthy voting process, one of the most polarizing and divisive rounds of elections in modern times, will come to an end with the declaration of results on Tuesday.

Polls indicate that the issues concerning voters include soaring youth unemployment at nearly 50 percent and a vast wealth gap. But with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party fearing a dip in turnout, populist Hindu nationalist politicians have instead focused on demonizing and disenfranchising minorities as a means of juicing the vote.

Some of the most blatant abuses have been in BJP-governed states with substantial minority populations. Non-Hindu communities have suffered from “bulldozer justice,” with entire districts demolished for allegedly lacking proper permits, and have found themselves inexplicably removed from voter rolls.

In several locations in Uttar Pradesh, the police attacked and dispersed non-Hindus who turned up to vote. Violence against voters was even more blatant in Kashmir, where the 2019 law revoking the region’s special autonomous status has motivated higher anti-BJP voter turnout. Oppositionists accused the police of detaining and intimidating party workers and deliberately suppressing the vote.

In Assam state, a gerrymandering process known as “delimitation” has required some non-Hindu communities to travel over 100 kilometers to their nearest voting center. Opposition parties warn that delimitation has “ensured no Muslim candidate can win in the future.”

The BJP has also aggressively gone after opposition groups, with the Congress party’s bank accounts frozen in February over tax payments and senior oppositionists jailed on a variety of flimsy charges, and there has been a purge of media outlets perceived to be insufficiently favorable, including the BBC. Meanwhile, a phalanx of supportive media institutions have been dedicated to promoting the prime minister and the BJP. These elections could also set records for the avalanche of AI deep-fake content and online misinformation unleashed by all sides.

India’s foreign policy is riven with contradictions: Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a long time looked to China as a key economic partner, until Xi’s Jinping’s own expansionist nationalism became too conspicuously detrimental to India’s sovereign interests. In the Biden administration’s desperation to cultivate India as an ally against the likes of China, Russia and Iran, there has been a tendency to turn a blind eye to the country’s democratic shortcomings. India has furthermore sought to have it both ways on Ukraine and other global threats, particularly given India’s dependence on oil from Russia and Iran. India has sought to cultivate stronger ties with GCC states, but Modi is also one of few world leaders who have pursued closer ties with Israel since the Gaza war.

BJP-aligned right-wing organizations have enjoyed impunity for embarking on bouts of communal violence, and lynching non-Hindus accused of smuggling beef.

Baria Alamuddin

Much attention has been focused on divisive and inflammatory comments made by the prime minister himself, with Modi telling one rally: “When they were last in power, the Congress said that Muslims have the first right to the nation’s resources. What does that mean? If they come to power, that means they will collect all the wealth. And who will they give it to? Those who have more children. To infiltrators.”

Along with the demonisation of Indian Muslims as “infiltrators” and the ubiquitous slur that their families are having more children in order to displace Hindus in India, political speeches and election propaganda have repeatedly emphasized the mantra of “Love Jihad” — the myth of Hindu women being seduced and forcibly converted. Evoking this specter, BJP state governments have introduced anti-conversion legislation and encouraged police crackdowns on interfaith couples. A recent Bollywood film, “Kerala Story,” which was promoted by BJP politicians, claimed that 32,000 women in Kerala state had been forcibly converted to Islam before being recruited into the ranks of Daesh. This is one of a flood of recent propagandistic Bollywood films that have demonised non-Hindu demographics.

Although extremist Hindu nationalists have gone after secularists, Sikhs, Christians and others, India’s more than 200 million Muslims are viewed by the BJP as the primary threat to their monolithic vision of Hindu supremacy, and consequently face growing discrimination in employment and education, along with increasingly systematic barriers to social advancement.

Modi’s India is often portrayed as an economic miracle, with its massive infrastructure projects and widening citizens’ access to technology, banking and consumer goods. Although the proportion of those living in extreme poverty has fallen, from 18.7 percent in 2015 to 12 percent in 2021, social inequalities have dangerously widened, with the top 10 percent of the population holding 77 percent of national wealth. India’s 2019 citizenship law wields the power to make millions stateless.

BJP-aligned right-wing organizations have enjoyed impunity for embarking on bouts of communal violence, and lynching non-Hindus accused of smuggling beef. BJP politicians openly celebrate notorious Hindu vigilantes accused of murderous attacks on minorities. Hate speech has soared, with one research group finding that 75 percent of recent instances occurred in BJP-ruled states.

Throughout Europe, the US, and elsewhere in the world, we also see populists and fascists whipping up communal and religious hatreds as the surest route to political power.

I had the bittersweet pleasure of interviewing Indira Gandhi in 1984, just hours before the prime minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. Gandhi told me of her love of hiking in Kashmir’s mountains, and extolled the importance of her nation’s inherent diversity: India must be a state for all its peoples, she told me, not a democracy for only one segment of the population.

Few doubt that the BJP’s tactics for maximising turnout among the Hindu majority will prevail, but when victory carries such dangerously high costs, all segments of society risk losing from the resulting social turmoil.


Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view