In April-May next year an estimated 900 million Indians will be heading to the polls to elect their next parliament. In the 70-odd years since India’s independence, this will likely be the first election that seriously challenges the country’s inclusive political culture.
If the current government led by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures another emphatic mandate, the country will move dangerously close to becoming a majoritarian state.
A decisive victory would give the BJP hegemonic control over all state institutions, as well as the media and public discourse. This would further undermine the integrity and autonomy of different arms of the state, including the judiciary, public watchdogs and, more importantly, state-run educational institutions. Moreover, another BJP victory would put the freedoms and security of approximately 175 million Indian Muslims in jeopardy.
Amid waning public support for the government caused by economic failures, the BJP recently took a series of steps to accentuate India’s growing religious polarisation. It appears the far-right party is trying to secure an electoral victory not by convincing Indians that it will implement a strong social, economic and political agenda, but by fomenting the Hindu majority’s prejudices against Muslims and convincing them to vote along religious lines.
Fuelling religious polarisation
In 2014, Modi was voted into office for two reasons. First, anti-incumbent sentiment against the Congress-led coalition government was rampant, mainly as a result of corruption accusations and a downward drift in governance. Second, Modi managed to raise Indians’ hopes about their country’s future by making several ambitious promises.
Despite his controversial past – he was accused of initiating and condoning the 2002 Gujarat riots that resulted in the death of almost 1,000 people, many of them Muslims – Modi succeeded in presenting himself as a messiah of development throughout the election campaign.
Once in power, however, he moved away from the reformist image he created for himself.
He did follow through some of his campaign promises, such as starting pro-poor economic schemes and innovative programmes but mostly used sectarian, Hindu-nationalist dog whistles to consolidate his power. As a result, Muslims became open targets for discrimination and abuse.
The Modi government’s tacit promotion of sectarian politics resulted in disquiet in what is identified as “Middle India” – a burgeoning demographic block of urban middle-classes who are socially liberal and economically conservative.
They backed Modi in the 2014 election, mostly because they believed he had left divisive politics behind and was committed to economic policies that would help everyone prosper. They expected him to act as a neo-Thatcherite reformer and save the struggling Indian economy. However, only a couple of months into his reign, Middle India realised that he is no unifying reformer.
Over the past four years, the BJP government has repeatedly turned a blind eye on attacks by fringe groups on religious minorities. According to data from IndiaSpend, which tracks news about violence in English-language media, reports of religious-based hate-crimes – mainly targeting Muslims – have spiked significantly since 2014.
Modi himself did little more than deliver periodical tepid words of caution in the face of growing religious polarisation. He likely believes that firing up Hindu-nationalist sentiments would give him an electoral advantage. In the end, he was right. Sectarian politics did partially cost the BJP the support of Middle India but simultaneously made it more popular among wider Hindu masses across the country (As seen in the party’s landslide victory in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2017).
However, such divisive politics stopped yielding sufficient political dividends for the BJP from the autumn of 2017 and Modi’s personal popularity started to decline.
BJP’s loss of electoral momentum
Modi’s loss of popularity was mainly caused by two controversial economic decisions: the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in November 2016 and the rollout of a Goods and Service Tax in July 2017. These decisions hurt small and medium-sized businesses and held the Indian economy back. Both decisions were criticised harshly by prominent economists and were not popular among ordinary citizens.
These economic moves diminished the government and the PM’s political clout significantly, and are likely to negatively impact the BJP’s prospects in the 2019 general election.
The start of the BJP’s electoral slide became clear last December when the party limped to a majority in Modi’s home state, Gujarat. The party’s electoral decline continued into 2018: it won only three of the 13 parliamentary by-polls, and 5 of the 22 state legislature elections.
Beside demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax, rising unemployment and spiralling distress in the farming industry are also expected to cause Modi some electoral headaches in 2019. Opinion polls consistently demonstrate that the BJP’s popularity across India is on the decline. The BJP, well aware that it is facing strong anti-incumbent sentiments, is looking to find ways to widen its support base before the general election.
In the past, the party has tried to achieve this by stirring up nationalist sentiments and it is likely that it will continue to do so in the near future. For example, in 2016, Modi used the Indian military’s so-called “surgical strikes” against “terrorist units” in troubled Jammu and Kashmir for ultra-nationalist propaganda.
Just months after the strikes, he rode the wave of jingoistic fervour he created through these propaganda efforts and swept the elections in Uttar Pradesh. Earlier this year, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the anniversary of the operation would be celebrated every year as “National Strike Day” – further demonstrating that the BJP plans to continue using past military operations to stoke nationalist sentiment and garner support for the government.
Convincing Hindus to ‘vote Hindu’
The BJP’s ideological siblings have been campaigning for a nation-wide Hindu resurrection since the 1920s – the era in which the party’s core Hindutva ideology was first born. But, for a very long time, these efforts had limited success due to India’s syncretism and the caste-based divisions within Hindu society.
Hindu nationalists emerged as a major political force only in the late 1980s, on the back of the demands for a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya to be replaced with a Ram (an avatar of Vishnu, a major Hindu god) temple.
The demolition of the mosque in December 1992 led to several months of inter-communal rioting in which Hindus and Muslims attacked one another. A decade later, the issue led to the Gujarat riots, which helped Modi transition from a satrap to a popular political leader. Anti-Muslim riots in the Uttar Pradesh town of Muzaffarnagar in 2013, which were fanned by members and sympathisers of the BJP, also contributed to Modi’s 2014 electoral victory.
Such past efforts were indeed the main force behind the BJP and Modi’s rise to power, yet the governing party knows that it needs to do more to overcome the incumbent’s political handicap and is now actively working towards constructing a wider Hindu-nationalist voter block.
Thanks to the BJP’s efforts, the Ayodhya temple dispute is once again roaring and Hindu nationalists are agitating for the demolition of other historical mosques allegedly built over temples, including one in Modi’s political constituency, Varanasi. There are fears that these issues may be raked up further before the elections.
In recent weeks, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath renamed one major city and another district, alleging that previous names were “Islamic blemishes”. Coming on the back of other renaming controversies, this raised fears that a Hindu-nationalist “renaming spree” is about to begin.
Coupled with ongoing campaigns against eating beef and so-called “Love Jihad” and conspiracy theories about Muslims illegally entering India from Bangladesh and altering the demographic balance of the country, the government’s current attempts to fuel Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiments aim at shifting the voters’ focus away from daily grievances.
The BJP’s ultimate goal is to make the 80 percent of Indians who are Hindus vote according to their religious identity, driven by animosity towards minorities, mainly Muslims. If the BJP succeeds, this would turn India’s political character on its head.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.