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The dark side of Modi's election victory

Divisive campaign rhetoric leaves many Indians feeling insecure

In Narendra Modi’s India, playing the nationalist card means playing the religious community card. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

How India has changed in a decade. On the surface, it is a story focused on economic growth and of rising prosperity, even if the benefits are very unevenly spread.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi's crushing victory in the recent parliamentary elections shows there is another, much darker narrative under way -- one of increasing insecurity and division.

In 2009, a Congress Party-led coalition retained power in the Indian parliamentary election just six months after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, India's worst outrage.

Barely a word was said about national security as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader L.K. Advani were handily defeated.

At that time, "charges of being soft on national security had no discernible impact on the election," Amitabh Dubey, an analyst with research boutique TS Lombard, noted in a recent piece.

Advani never really exploited the attacks or the clear ineptitude of the government response during the campaign that year. Indeed, for the subsequent 11 years, those horrendous attacks played little role in the political debate or in the national consciousness to the extent that Sept. 11 did in the U.S.

But in this year's poll, with the BJP firmly in power, Modi wasted no time in resurrecting the specter of 2008 in campaign speeches.

His chance came after a militant Islamic group in Pakistan with links to the Army orchestrated the February attack on a convoy that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir; the subsequent attack on Pakistan 12 days later; and the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, observers of this year's bitter campaign might be forgiven for thinking that they were in a time-warp.

At times, the focus was on 2008, with the BJP's rhetoric focused on Congress's lack of a more muscular response to those attacks. At other times, it felt even further back in history, as Indians debated the terms under which their nation was torn apart in 1947, when partition set Hindus against Muslims with bloody consequences.

Despite clear economic progress, India has changed in the last decade in a way that it makes it more dysfunctional, not less so, in responding to the real challenges it needs to confront.

Modi’s message that he was the strong man of India, the only one who could keep the country safe from a threat that came not just from Pakistan but from Muslims generally, was doubly effective. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

A Hindu-majority country that seemed for so long to rejoice in its diversity, no longer seems to do so. It is renouncing its secular heritage and its tolerance of its Muslim minority in favor of narrow exclusive religion-based identities.

India has become far more open to fearmongering, even on the part of people who have prospered in recent years and sit at the narrow top of the economic pyramid.

In Modi's India, playing the nationalist card means playing the religious community card.

And because that essentially means not focusing on the real substantive issues of what ails India, the divisiveness and anger will only grow.

"India faced bigger terror attacks in the past, without attacking Pakistan," Dubey wrote in March. He argued that "the government narrative of decisive leadership just received a boost" at the expense of "the opposition narrative of the economic distress" of those suffering from the widening inequality that has accompanied economic growth.

Modi's message that he was the strong man of India, the only one who could keep the country safe from a threat that came not just from Pakistan but from Muslims generally, was doubly effective. It united Hindus who usually divide along caste lines in the Hindu heartland of the country such as Uttar Pradesh, the largest state by population and so vital in electoral terms. There, the BJP did far better than expected this year as it had done in state elections in 2017.

"The 2019 campaign took a nationalist turn whose dark rhetoric even made some within the BJP camp uncomfortable. The BJP party president (Amit Shah) delivered high-pitched rants about foreign 'infiltrators' eating away at the body politic 'like termites,'" wrote Milan Vaishnav, director of the Indian office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The prime minister (Modi) directly waded into majoritarian waters by insinuating that minority-dominated constituencies were somehow inferior to Hindu-majority ones," he wrote.

Such ideas have spread even among the most internationally minded of Indians. For example, sitting on her balcony in one of the most luxurious apartment complexes in Mumbai, one wealthy matron told me that since Pakistan opted to become a Muslim state, India by rights should have become a Hindu state.

But how actually would that possibly work in practice? Hinduism is a religion and social system that accords different rights to different people on the basis of the group into which they were born. Would turning India into Hindustan mean that the Supreme Court could no longer scrap a ban on women from entering a Hindu place of worship, as it did early this year in relation to a temple in the south of the country? Does that mean unequal access to the village well? For Muslims as well as lower-caste Hindus? Which Hindus even get to decide what Hindustan would mean?

The dark rhetoric to which Vaishnav refers was particularly on display in West Bengal, one of the states where the BJP made the most dramatic inroads. Muslims constitute 28% of the population of the state, or twice the national average. It is still possible to find Muslims and Hindus living side by side in the villages of West Bengal, which is no longer the case in Modi's home state of Gujarat and increasingly hard to find in Uttar Pradesh.

But the BJP went from two seats to 18 of the state's 42 as a result in part of fears that the current chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, leader of a local opposition party, was enabling Muslims to be smuggled across the border from Muslim-majority Bangladesh and given fake Indian identification, so Muslims would soon become the majority in West Bengal.

In retrospect, the state elections in Karnataka a year ago were a stark precedent in establishing how well fearmongering works in today's India. Karnataka is one of the most prosperous and educated states in the country. It should therefore be less vulnerable to scary rhetoric. But even there, the BJP sowed interreligious distrust, alleging that Indian Muslims from the neighboring state of Kerala were going to the Middle East for work, becoming radicalized and returning to Karnataka where they were buying up property and displacing Hindus.

Naya India (New India), a place Modi once promoted as offering the chance of a better life, is now, for many Indians, becoming more closely linked with fear than with hope.

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