Darker days lay ahead for opposition, minorities after India’s election

For many commentators, an unequivocal victory for Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the foregone conclusion of the ongoing Indian general elections. They insist that the question is not if Modi will win but by how much in terms of seats and votes.

Yet, despite this seeming certainty regarding the outcome of these elections, the ruling party and its leader have appeared jittery. And after the winner is declared, I worry, darker and more repressive days may follow.

The Indian elections are indeed a big deal. A total of 543 seats in the lower house are up for grabs for 2600 registered political parties. With 969 million eligible voters, it is also the world’s largest election. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has 15 million people employed to monitor and facilitate the elections. Polling has also been spread across 44 days. In this period, incumbent Prime Minister Modi, in search for a third term, has reportedly attended over 200 public events and given 80 interviews.

It would be easy to say that what we are witnessing is a celebration of democracy. But numbers can be deceptive.

For a few years now India has witnessed a steady democratic downturn. Media and press freedoms have been suppressed and there is little to speak of in terms of journalistic independence in the mainstream. Often dubbed as Godi media – a play on Modi’s name and the word for “lapdogs” – it is not uncommon for mainstream journalism to operate as an arm of the BJP propaganda machinery. Critical journalists have also been targeted by the PM’s cadres as well as federal economic and investigative agencies. In 2024, Reporters without Borders declared the Indian media to be in an “unofficial state of emergency”. The rights of minority groups have also been systematically under attack. Punitive measures have included arbitrary detention and arrests, public floggings and the demolition of homes, businesses and places of worship.

All of these measures helped the Modi-led Hindu nationalists become a hegemonic force in Indian politics long before the elections. Yet, in the lead-up to these elections, they have seemed unsure of their standing. But why?

Commentators have noted that despite no one doubting that Modi will win the elections, the jingoism around him as a leader embarking on a third term has been noticeably lacklustre. As the elections proceeded this has been reflected in the slightly low voter turnout. The BJP’s self-image as a “corruption slayer” took a beating in late March when the Supreme Court-led disclosers of the Electoral Bonds scheme – a highly secretive “election funding” program introduced by the Modi government in the 2017 Finance Bill – revealed that the BJP was its largest beneficiary. The opposition has called the scheme “the world’s largest extortion racket” run by the prime minister himself.

There also seems to be a lack of marquee election issues to galvanise voters. Greatly hyped electoral promises like the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on top of the ruins of Babri Masjid that was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 and the revocation of the constitutional guaranteed special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir have already been fulfilled. Attention has turned to “bread-and-butter issues” and the performance of the ruling party on “economic growth, job creation, and poverty alleviation” has been less than stellar. Nearly 800 million people remain dependent on government rations. Unemployment rate among 20–24-year-olds hovers around 50 percent. India today is also more unequal than it was under British colonial rule. Under Modi, the top one percent’s income and wealth shares reached 22.6 percent and 40.1 percent respectively. The income share of India’s top one percent is now among the “highest in the world”, above South Africa, Brazil and the United States.

Nervous about how these issues would affect the ruling party’s election prospects, the government has been uncompromising.

The ruling BJP party has more money than all the other political parties combined. Yet, when the Congress, India’s largest opposition party, attempted to attract small, individual donations, the government weaponised the Income Tax Department and froze the party’s bank account. Tax authorities have also confiscated $14m from the party.

Former party chief Rahul Gandhi said the Congress was unable to campaign before the elections. “We can’t support our workers, and our candidates and leaders can’t travel by air or train,” he told reporters. “This is a criminal action on the Congress party done by the prime minister and the home minister,” he added. “The idea that India is a democracy is a lie. There is no democracy in India today,”

Less than a month before the start of the elections, Delhi Chief Minister and leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the federal financial crimes agency on “graft allegations” in relation to Delhi’s liquor policy. Members of the party have said that this was a politically motivated move and done to prevent him from campaigning. The senior AAP leader and Delhi’s finance leader Atishi said, “This was a way to steal elections.”

The BJP has also endeavoured to remind the electorate of its “origin story” – namely its Islamophobic ethos and aspirations. Modi usually lets others in the BJP cadre engage in overtly Islamophobic rhetoric, while he himself maintains the aura of a stoic spiritual leader. Yet, this time around he has felt the need to take on the Islamophobia mantle. On the campaign trail, he has regularly used communal language and called Muslims “infiltrators [with] large families”. Without any evidence, Modi has claimed that under Congress rule Muslims “have first right over resources”. He warned that the opposition party would gather all the wealth of Hindus and redistribute it among the “infiltrators”. Modi also warned Hindu women that the opposition party would take away their gold and “redistribute it to Muslims”. During a public rally in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, Modi also said that Congress was committing “vote Jihad” by uniting Muslims against him.

On June 4, Modi will most likely be declared the winner. But a victory will not make the ruling party or its leader any less anxious about its hold over Indian politics. As it has done in the lead-up to the elections, it is likely that BJP and Modi will continue their efforts to further entrench Hindu nationalist hegemony and dominance. Unfortunately, in an already declining democracy, this would mean more repressive measures and possibly the suppression of all remaining avenues of protest and opposition to Hindu nationalist hegemony.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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