A new India is being put in place, every day, every hour, in the streets and in the representative institutions of Indian democracy.
The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has worked hard over the last five years to construct a Muslim enemy within the country, weaken democratic institutions, and create an atmosphere of fear where all those who speak against Prime Minister Narendra Modi are attacked as anti-nationals, Muslim appeasers, or Pakistani agents.
In the current elections, no less than India’s democratic and secular principles are at stake.
Making of the Muslim enemy
During the current electoral campaign, several BJP members of parliament have clearly stated that their goal is to change the constitution and make India a Hindu nation.
The present BJP government is the political wing of a hundred-year-old fascist organization called the Rashtrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose founding fathers were inspired by the Italian fascism of Mussolini. They also wrote in praise of Hitler’s nationalism and his treatment and genocide of Jews.
Under the BJP, persecution and demonization of Muslims has gathered speed and intensity. Here are a few examples to date.
In April, a Muslim youth in New Delhi’s Tihar jail was branded with hot metal, allegedly by the prison superintendent. The Om symbol was burned into his back during the Hindu religious festival of Navaratras.
The BJP candidate for the city of Bhopal is Pragya Thakur, who is facing trial for terror activities aimed against Muslims, criminal conspiracy, and murder. The bomb blast in which she is accused of being involved killed six people and injured over a hundred. A network of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) terrorists had carried out a series of such attacks in 2008. At that time the Congress party headed the government. Now, Modi is actually claiming that by prosecuting Pragya Thakur as a Hindu terrorist, the Congress party was portraying all Hindus as terrorists.
Two days before the first day of polling in April, Modi appealed to young first-time voters, around 84 million people, asking them to dedicate their vote to the military soldiers who recently went into Pakistani territory and allegedly struck the jihadis, and also to Indian soldiers who were martyred in attacks by jihadi terrorists from Pakistan. His message was clear: The enemy is Muslim. When polls opened, the president of the BJP, Amit Shah, tweeted, “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” Like his boss, Shah had set his sights on Muslims.
Each narrative on Muslims offered by the BJP is more demeaning than the last one, an attempt to frighten people by conjuring up enemies inside and outside. This is an old strategy of the BJP. “The Muslims are shown as somehow in cahoots with the jihadis operating out of Pakistan. The internal enemy, aiding and abetting, the external enemy,” as writer Harish Khare put it.
The BJP’s project is to use Muslims for political ends while making them politically irrelevant. “The Hindus have been made to feel under siege, threatened, insecure and have been enticed into a manufactured nationalist rage centred around ‘showing Muslims their place,’” said Khare.
Attack on democratic and secular institution
The Modi government has also launched a sustained attack on the institutions of higher education and learning in the country.
Institutions that research and develop syllabi and curricula for schools and colleges are being subverted, their directors replaced by people with the RSS’ ideology. Thus, high school books with chapters in praise of Hitler have been produced.
Likewise, at universities with left-wing student unions, RSS supporters have been appointed as vice chancellors. Any scientific vision and critical thinking is being targeted.
Artists, including theater and film actors, writers, poets, and scientists, have circulated petitions appealing to people to vote the BJP out. Given the acute agrarian crisis in the country, there have been a number of massive peasant protests led by leftist trade unions, and rallies and processions organized by pro-democracy civil society organizations. Unemployment among youth is at its highest in the past 45 years, and the anger of young people is palpable.
But will this translate into votes against the BJP? And if it does, will the opposition parties be able to consolidate it into a block vote against the BJP? In an extremely diverse society like India, determining voting trends is very complicated. Rarely have electoral calculations and predictions come close to the final outcome. The existence of multiple religions, languages, and castes also plays a crucial role in voting.
The challenges of the opposition parties
The political parties outside of the coalition cobbled together by the BJP have articulated their main agenda: to defeat Modi and the BJP.
All major opposition parties, including the Communists, have clearly defined the nature of Modi’s government as being authoritarian and fascist. They are all appealing to the electorate to vote for the candidate that is most likely to defeat the BJP candidate in their constituency. In the last elections, they say, Modi came to power with 33 per cent of votes and if the remaining 67 per cent of the votes can be strategically harvested, Modi can be defeated.
Having said that, the pre-election alliances of the opposition are not as united and strong as they could and should have been.
For more than three decades no single party has been able to form a government on its own. The BJP helped found an alliance of parties called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Congress party has forged an alliance, called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). There are many regional and provincial parties that are strong in their areas and have a say in the final results of the national elections.
The opposition parties over the last year kept signalling they would come together to combat the BJP. However, as things stood on the eve of elections, the opposition unity experiment was only partially successful. The Congress-led UPA is more or less the same as it was in 2014, while the BJP-led NDA increased its alliance members from 16 to more than 35 parties.
However, the regional parties have shown some positive spirit in coming together, the biggest example of which is the alliance between three archrivals in India’s largest province of Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, other regional parties have emerged as the most vocal opponents of the Modi government in the run-up to elections.
Opposition parties have, nonetheless, foregrounded issues like rising unemployment, an intensifying agrarian crisis, communal disharmony, corruption, and the disastrous impact of anti-poor economic policies. They have raised these issues against the BJP and blamed the Modi government squarely for India’s falling economic and political standards.
Against this backdrop, the general elections will perhaps be the most polarized and crucial in India’s history. It is a battle between fascism and democracy.