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India’s election campaign turns negative as Modi and ruling party embrace Islamophobic rhetoric

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is increasingly resorting to overtly Islamophobic language during his election campaign, critics and observers say, as he seeks a third straight term governing the world’s most populous nation.

As turnout in the polls so far shows a slight dip from five years ago, the popular leader – and overwhelming favorite – has embraced negative campaigning, they say, and received little pushback from civil society or election authorities.

Followers of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and some of its top figures – have long been accused of using inflammatory language to describe the country’s 200 million Muslims, but rarely Modi himself. However this election has brought a clear shift, critics say.

“What is unique about what we’ve seen recently, is that these statements are being uttered by the Prime Minister himself,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not necessarily by surrogates – the Home Minister, or by the chief minister – or by other kind of party apparatchiks.”

The shift in tone is making many Indian Muslims nervous.

“Modi and the BJP have for a long time been making references to the community, but it’s moved on from the dog whistle,” said political researcher and columnist Asim Ali. “It’s painting us as an existential threat to Hindus. It’s coming directly from the prime minister. It’s anti-Muslim, and it’s dangerous.”

Modi and his BJP have repeatedly said they do not discriminate against minority groups.

But analysts and observers have noted multiple speeches he’s made during this six-week election campaign, that began last month, specifically refer to Muslims and paint them in a negative light.

Calling Muslims “infiltrators” with “large families,” Modi has accused his main opposition, the Indian National Congress, without evidence, of intending to redistribute the country’s wealth to Muslims. He warned women that the opposition would take their gold and redistribute it to Muslims. He accused Congress of wanting to choose players on the Indian cricket team “on the basis of religion.” And he has claimed the party is conspiring to commit “vote jihad” by uniting “a certain community” against him.

For Irfan Nooruddin, a professor of Indian politics at Georgetown University, the rhetoric has “become much more starkly and overtly communal.”

“These are very central views within the BJP that are sometimes suppressed to avoid negative press or civil society pushback. With the media and civil society neutralized, the BJP no longer fears such consequences and so can pull back the veil,” he said.

“The BJP understands that its path to a majority in parliament – especially a super-majority that would allow it to amend the constitution – is to consolidate the Hindu vote and to prevent the opposition from making inroads through economic appeals,” added Nooruddin.

Signs of anxiety?

The prime minister has set an ambitious target for his alliance to win 400 seats in the country’s Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, in this election.

Many in the country say their lives have been transformed under his leadership, aided by his far-reaching welfare and development schemes. Weeks before voting began, analysts were certain his party would sweep the polls yet again.

Since April 19, millions have flocked to polling booths to cast their vote. But turnout across six phases so far has slightly dipped from the record highs of 2019, and this might be causing anxiety among BJP leaders, analysts say.

The chief minister of Delhi, popular opposition leader and staunch Modi critic, Arvind Kejriwal, was temporarily allowed out of prison earlier this month after being arrested on corruption charges, in a case his allies claimed was politically motivated. His release has galvanized a once flattened opposition, uniting them to deliver a tough fight to Modi and his BJP.

“This election is becoming competitive,” said political researcher Ali, suggesting that a tighter race in key seats might be motivating the ruling party to ramp up the inflammatory language. “The BJP is a favorite but their target is ambitious, and this rhetoric appeals to their vote bank.”

Many have accused the prime minister of tacitly endorsing sectarianism to bolster his Hindu-nationalist credentials, while diverting from policy failures – such as youth unemployment, which now stands at close to 50% among 20- to 24-year-olds, and the vast wealth gap in the country, which according to a recent study is more unequal than it was during British rule.

“The BJP’s track record on economic growth, job creation, and poverty alleviation is weak,” Nooruddin, from Georgetown University, said. “These bread-and-butter issues are central to election campaigns and the opposition has really sought to emphasize them. So, I think the BJP’s resort to overt communal rhetoric is an effort to fight an election on its preferred terms rather than on issues where it is vulnerable.”

Muslim independent journalist Alishan Jafri noted that the day-to-day struggles brought by poverty and unemployment are “affecting Muslims as much as it’s affecting poor Hindus,” pointing to some 800 million people dependent on rations provided by the government.

“To tell (Hindus) that Muslims will take away even half of that is surely going to scare them and divide the communities on religious lines. That the mainstream media has refused to push back tells us two things: they are compromised, or they support it.”

Global reputation

Modi’s government posits India as a leader on the global stage. His calendar last year included diplomatic trips to Australia and the United States, and he presents himself as a statesman cementing the country as a modern power.

Last year India overtook China to become the world’s most populous nation, while the year before it surpassed former colonial power Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. According to Vaishnav, the muted response to Modi’s divisive language from Western leaders must be seen through the prism through which they view India – as a balance against an increasingly assertive China.

At home, analysts say, his grip on power has allowed him to make such comments with little pushback from civil society.

“The Election Commission is pretty toothless and what powers it has had have been further weakened by changes made to how commissioners are appointed by making the Prime Minister’s Office more central to that process,” Nooruddin said.

Modi’s April 21 speech about “infiltrators” has ignited widespread anger among Muslim leaders and opposition politicians, and calls for election authorities to investigate. BJP party spokespeople subsequently said Modi was talking specifically about undocumented migrants.

The election commission has asked the BJP to respond to the allegations. But opposition groups and critics say the response is not strong enough.

Globally, independent polls suggest that India’s image is declining in some countries around the world and there is some criticism about the government’s Hindu nationalist ambitions.

“The anti-Muslim rhetoric used on the campaign trail will unfortunately further damage India’s reputation globally. This is unnecessary at a time when India should be ascendant,” Nooruddin said.

For Jafri, the journalist, the effects are clear.

“I can’t express what millions of people feel as a collective, but I am sure that nobody likes being constantly abused, bullied, betrayed, and singled out,” he said. “Some feel attacked and humiliated. Many have become cynical, and they don’t expect any better from this regime and its supporters.”

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