On 23rd May, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were declared the victors of the 2019 Indian general election – a result that many fear will worsen the country’s struggles with sectarian violence.
The BJP party won 303 of 545 seats available, increasing its majority and securing a second term for Prime Minister Modi. Critics of the leader and his party fear that this will function as a mandate for him to continue with his divisive brand of Hindu nationalism.
Modi’s first five years in office were marred by a rise in violent attacks on minority groups. A report by Human Rights Watch estimates that 44 people – most of them Muslims – were lynched by cow vigilantes during the period.
Rather than disavowing this violence, Modi has used it, together with its underlying ideology, to his electoral advantage. Author and journalist Saeed Naqvi argues that religious polarisation was central to the BJP’s success. One only needs to consider the events of the campaign to see why: BJP President Amit Shah referred to undocumented Muslim immigrants as “termites”; the party fielded a candidate who is facing terrorism charges for an alleged role in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, which led to the deaths of 10 people and injury of 80 more; and there was prominent debate over the course of the election about whether or not Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin – who killed the founding father for supposedly cowing to Muslim demands – was in fact a patriot.
The pre-eminence of underlying anti-Muslim attitudes within the BJP is perhaps not surprising, when one considers the background of the man leading the party. As Indian writer and journalist Kapil Komireddi alleges, behind the “myth” of Narendra Modi as a “technocratic moderniser” lies an unpleasant truth – one that reveals a man of “innate viciousness”, “vainglory”, and “incompetence”. Modi once described refugee camps housing Muslims displaced by riots as “baby-making factories”; and as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, he presided a pogrom that killed over 1,000 people – in 2011, a senior police officer testified to the Indian Supreme Court that Modi had defended this violence at the time as a legitimate route through which Hindus should be allowed to vent their anger.
Despite lip-service paid to India’s minorities following his latest victory – Modi acknowledged that “vote bank politics” had meant that the campaign “exploited” minorities – India’s struggles with religious violence do not appear to be going away. According to Al Jazeera, at least 5 hate crimes have been reported since the election. These include a man who was shot at and told to “go back to Pakistan” simply for having a Muslim name; a woman badly beaten by a Hindu mob who suspected her of carrying beef; and a Muslim man in Delhi who was stripped of his prayer cap and made to shout slogans in praise of Hindu gods.
Komireddi argues that in Modi’s India this violence has become a “therapeutic option” for voters frustrated with unfulfilled promises made by politicians and a lack of significant improvements in living standards within the growing economy. He claims that whilst religious tension has been present in India for decades, it is only under the BJP’s rule that it has been allowed to reach its “homicidal expression”. Komireddi recounts that wherever he travelled in India ahead of the election, a common sentiment was expressed by Hindu voters: Modi may have failed to significantly improve their lives and economic standing, “but he has at least put Muslims in their place”. So long as Modi’s anti-Muslim ideology remains at the head of government and is backed by Hindu voters, bigotry and the violence it begets looks set to stay in India.