Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a rally in Mumbai on April 26. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party increased its already substantial majority in the recently completed elections, winning 303 out of 545 seats in the lower house of parliament. Photo: Bloomberg
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel

Modi’s re-election shows India has abandoned diversity and embraced Hindu-majority rule

  • The triumphant rise of Modi’s once-obscure party and collapse of the opposition means Muslims have reason to worry – India no longer embraces secularism and diversity
India has continued its drift towards majoritarianism, re-electing the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the general election. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority in results declared on May 23, taking more seats than any other party has in over three decades.

This is the second successive majority Modi has won and caps a remarkable rise for the BJP. The party won only two seats out of 543 in the 1984 election and only secured its first majority in 2014 under Modi.

The opposition Indian National Congress, the party of India’s independence and of Mahatma Gandhi, again won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats, denying its leader the symbolic role of leader of the opposition in parliament. Congress has been the primary target of the BJP and has been portrayed by Modi, quite effectively, as nepotistic, corrupt, incompetent, soft on terror and pandering to India’s minorities. Its defeat means there will be little resistance in parliament to the aggressive majoritarian thrust of the BJP.

The recent dominance of Hindu nationalists is linked closely to Modi, who was chief minister for over a decade in the province of Gujarat. He became a national figure after religious violence on his watch claimed the lives of around 1,000 Gujaratis, most of them Muslim. His unapologetic stance on that massacre in 2002 – for which one of his ministers, Maya Kodnani, was convicted and later acquitted of participation in mass murder – has made him the most polarising leader in India’s modern history.

Religious violence has long assisted the BJP in its expansion. Its fiery campaign against a medieval mosque and its subsequent demolition in 1992 resulted in the deaths of around 2,000 Indians. But it also gave the BJP the momentum to form its first national government in 1996.

Modi said this week, after his win, that the five years of his new term would be as significant in Indian history as 1942-1947. That was when India became independent and began writing its constitution. Modi’s words have alarmed those who see the BJP as moving India towards constitutional change as a majoritarian state.

India is officially secular, though Congress, which has always been dominated by Hindus, smuggled in religious laws. India’s constitution seeks a ban on the slaughter of cows, seen as holy by many Hindus. A few months after Modi took office in 2014, he spoke against cow slaughter and his party enforced a series of provincial bans. This was followed by lethal violence against Muslims accused of eating or transporting beef. In scenes that have become depressingly commonplace, bystanders filmed these murders on their phones and uploaded them on social media.

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The data journalism website has compiled a list of 127 such incidents, which have claimed 47 lives, all after 2015. The victims have been mostly Muslims. While Modi has condemned the lynchings, especially when the victims have been Hindus of lower caste, there has been no acceptance of causality.

The fear is that the next five years will bring further grief to India’s Muslims, the world’s largest minority population, numbering 175 million. Already marginalised politically – none of the BJP’s 303 elected MPs is a Muslim – they are fearful of what comes next. The accusation that the BJP was bullying Muslims, something so obvious as to be banal, was so ineffective in the election that Congress gave up saying it at the beginning of the campaign.

One reason why it is difficult to foresee what the next five years will bring is the unpredictability of Modi. He is portrayed as charismatic and decisive. However, he accepts that he is not cut out for reading long text and often decides issues after receiving a two-minute oral briefing. This has not dented his decisiveness and certitude.

Following a suicide bombing on an Indian army convoy earlier this year in Kashmir, Modi ordered an air strike inside Pakistani territory. It was scheduled on a day when the weather turned inclement and Modi says he offered advice to the Air Force on the camouflaging effects of clouds on enemy radar.

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India, a nuclear weapons power, as is Pakistan, has developed a doctrine of no first use. However, Modi has little patience for deterrence theory. He made a speech recently in which he said India’s nuclear weapons were not Diwali firecrackers and existed to be used.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman recites the Koran on the second day of Ramadan inside a shrine in Srinagar on May 8. Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority province. Photo: EPA-EFE
Modi’s bellicosity has not produced any strategic benefit. Under his strategy, a long-term decline in violence in Kashmir has come undone. Government figures show that terrorism-related fatalities in that province have increased from 189 in 2014 to 451 last year. Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority province, is currently ruled directly by Delhi and elections there have been put off indefinitely.

The BJP claims it has 100 million paying members (twice that number voted for it) and the party is a formidable force at the height of its power and under a charismatic leader. The election it won was not fought in the main on economic progress, unemployment or poverty: the focus was on Pakistan and sorting out the enemies within. The new government will be expected to enforce its mandate.

A long period when India’s governments stressed secularism, inclusion and diversity is over. What comes next should concern both India and the world.

Aakar Patel is a syndicated columnist and executive director of Amnesty International India