Voting has finally concluded in the marathon election that has stretched on for over 12 weeks. Starting at a point where it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Bharatiya Janata Party would return to power for a third term, the election is coming to a close on a more uncertain note. The opposition INDIA alliance has expressed equal confidence in being able to form the government. June 4, when votes are counted and results announced, will set to rest the uncertainties.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections have been marred by serious irregularities and the systemic failure of the election authorities. But what really characterises this election is the fact that the BJP Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned it into a referendum on Muslims and their place in India.

The BJP has had little else to say to the electorate, either about its past performance or its vision for the future. Since April 21, Modi has, in his almost daily appearances at election rallies, directed a barrage of hate speech, conspiracies and accusations against India’s Muslims.

He has referred to the community as “infiltrators”, those “with many children” and “jihadis” and other derisions. He falsely accused the Congress of “appeasing” Muslims at the cost of other Indians, even claiming that party members would perform a “mujra” for its “vote bank”, a disparaging reference to Muslims.

Modi’s cynical use of disinformation included claims that the Congress would redistribute the wealth of other Indians and hand it to Muslims, cut into reservation quotas for deprived groups to benefit Muslims and even provide preferential places on national sports teams to Muslims.

Elsewhere he praised the use of bulldozer “justice”, often seen as reprisal attacks by BJP administrators against Muslims.

Modi’s closest associates have followed his lead. In his election speeches, Home Minister Amit Shah has frequently accused Muslims of waging “love jihad”, “land jihad” and “forest jihad” against other Indians. He has accused opposition parties of favouring “infiltrators” and the “mullah madrasa mafia”. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and Assam Chief Minister Hemant Biswa Sarma made similar speeches.

The BJP’s official social media accounts enthusiastically promoted these conspiracies, reinforcing the image of the Muslim bogeyman.

Modi’s decision to make the BJP’s 2024 election pitch almost entirely about Muslims says a great deal about the anti-minority intentions of the ruling party. The fact that the holder of the highest office in the land and his closest associates chose to demonise India’s 220 million Muslims throughout the prolonged campaign period, in an attempt to incite fear and hostility among their own supporters to seek their votes, says a lot about how they seek to normalise anti-minority abuse in India.

Muslims were in the news during elections for other reasons too. There were complaints of Muslim names being dropped from the electoral rolls and Muslims being prevented from voting, a concern that has been flagged by scholars in the past.

Regardless of the outcome of elections, the consequences of such a campaign are sure to be grave. There has been a growing body of evidence over the past decade of anti-Muslim hate and incitement gaining ground.

With the 2024 general election, the phenomenon of Muslims being scapegoated and dehumanised is likely to be further normalised. This will have serious consequences for Muslims and for Indian society, already polarised beyond repair.

A man walks with his son to a polling station to vote during the sixth phase of the election in Delhi on May 25. Credit: Reuters.

At the heart of this normalisation is the sense of impunity that shields such actions. The fact that the prime minister and senior BJP officials can brazenly and repeatedly incite hatred against an entire group of citizens reflects their confidence that they will not be held to account.

This impunity is the result of the capitulation to executive capture by institutions that exist to enforce the law and uphold justice. Throughout the campaign, the Election Commission has failed to enforce its own laws and the model code of conduct on communal speech, allowing BJP leaders to continue to violate the law. The courts, too, have failed to respond to applications by citizens against the speeches.

This failure is not new. The perpetrators of some of the most egregious instances of dangerous speech over the past years continue to escape accountability.

The prejudice that has been reinforced by Modi’s campaign speeches will have another likely impact: the further invisibilisation of Indian Muslims as citizens with equal rights and agency.

Modi’s accusations have sought to blame the Congress and other “secular” parties of wrongfully benefiting Muslims and “appeasing” them. The Congress’s response and that of much of the Opposition has been of fact checking to challenge the lies of BJP leaders, making the point that the Congress’s manifesto and its leaders past and present did in fact not do what they are accused of.

Lost in these debates is any recognition that Muslims deserve benefits, protection and representation that is due to them as citizens, and it should not be wrong to include weaker sections among them in discussions on public resource allocation, access to services and affirmative action.

Since the publication in 2006 of the landmark Sachar report on the economic and social backwardness of Indian Muslim, there has been a growing body of evidence of the barriers that Muslims face in accessing education, health, livelihoods and services, and of Muslim disempowerment worsening in the years under BJP. This socio-economic marginalisation has kept pace with Muslim exclusion from representation, reduced to alarmingly low levels especially recently, in public sector jobs, elected bodies and institutions.

Even half-hearted attempts for the inclusion of Muslims by the Congress and other secular parties, when they have been in power, have drawn shrill cries of Muslim appeasement from the BJP and Hindutva supporters. They also blame the victims themselves for their backwardness. On their part, opposition parties have mostly avoided confronting these false claims on their merits.

This has resulted in a flawed perception of Indian Muslims as undeserving. Modi’s claims during the BJP’s election campaign and the opposition’s stock responses have shrunk the already-constrained space for any objective consideration of the question of Muslim marginalisation.

The exclusion and demonisation of Muslims will have dark consequences for India’s future and the stability of the region.

This process has been playing out on the world stage as atrocities continue to be unleashed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Needless to add, the situation in India is nowhere as bloody as Gaza’s and the two contexts are not analogous. But the horrors in Gaza, indeed all mass atrocities historically, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo or Darfur, have lessons for India.

Unchecked prejudice and prolonged dehumanisation create the grounds that are permissive for massacres. Massacres are enabled by impunity. The disregard for human life and of international law with which Israel seems so evidently to be conducting itself in Gaza and the West Bank is explained by Tel Aviv never having been held to account for its actions.

But the needle seems to be moving finally. International law and international public pressure seem to be catching up with the perpetrators of injustice and their collaborators. This too is a lesson for us, of the impermanence of impunity and the fruitful possibilities that exist in struggles for justice and peace.

Regardless of which political formation wrests power on June 4, the winners would do well to be mindful of their obligation to protect democracy while eschewing policies and practices that undermine the rights of all and the rule of law. Their failure to do so would only draw more demands for accountability.

Sajjad Hassan is a researcher of conflicts and peace-building in an uncertain world.