“This election is very important. It is not about roads, drinking water or gutters. This election is about Hindus and Muslims. Those who want to build the Babri Masjid, those who want to celebrate Tipu Jayanti, let them vote for the Congress. Those among you who want Shivaji Maharaj, those who want Sambhaji Maharaj, those who want to pray at a Lakshmi temple, you must vote for the BJP.”


It is quite clear that Sanjay Patil, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator standing for elections from North Karnataka, went directly against the dogma of development that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently propounded ahead of polls in the state on May 12. “Our agenda is only vikas, vikas, vikas [development],” Modi told party workers this week. “Our plan for Karnataka is three pronged: development, fast development and overall development.”

Patel is not the only one who does not appear to have received Modi’s memo.

Earlier this month, senior BJP leader KS Eashwarappa declared that the party’s main election issue would be protection of the holy cow. The Twitter handles of BJP MPs and MLAs routinely use tags that slyly demonise Muslims, such as #jihadiCongress, and interpose the word “jihadi” with “Muslim”. The BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, has frequently called Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah “anti-Hindu”.

Shah also acknowledged that Karnataka is the BJP’s “gateway to the south”. Indeed, the forthcoming vote is important to a party that, despite running or being a part of the government in 21 states, faces an erosion of support in many of India’s populous states. But there is much more at stake. If there were ever a state election that could determine not just the future of political discourse and destinies in India but the fate of secularism, it is the battle for Karnataka.

In a state that is 84% Hindu and 13% Muslim, the BJP has determinedly attempted to make the election about a supposed assault on Hindus by a Congress government whose politicians are mostly Hindu. Of the 497 candidates contesting the elections, no more than 4.6% or 23 are Muslim (15 from the Congress).

This is a now familiar and fake argument: the majority religion under threat, capable of being saved only by the BJP and its myriad – often more virulent and violent – siblings, a religion whose salvation lies only in building a temple in Ayodhya, saving the cow, keeping Muslims subjugated and voting for Modi.

Social media campaign

As the political marginalisation of minorities in Karnataka – a state with substantially more Muslims in politics and government than in northern India – indicates, it is hard to see any logic in these arguments. But reason is not a strong point among the radicalised, whose numbers among Hindus grow nationwide, their dormant resentments weaponised by social media – particularly through WhatsApp and its 200 million users in India.

Hindus are not the only ones radicalised, but given their sheer numbers, they are more vocal about their new, manipulated or resurgent beliefs. Radicalisation has infected the government, the police and the judiciary. This year, one particularly significant manifestation was made apparent in Bihar when police officers – unashamed of being filmed – led a Hindu procession screaming “Jai Shri Ram”.

Family and friends WhatsApp groups have splintered along ideological lines, the disintegration and anger growing whenever a violent incident involves religion or politics or a combustible combination of both, such as Hindu support to the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir. The demonisation of minorities and the search for enemies is apparent.

“Dear friends, last few months and till next general elections we are going to see a lot of false messages in [sic] social media,” reads a WhatsApp forward sent by a cousin whom I believed to be rational and mild. “Every day I receive at least 20 to 30 messages especially from Christian and Muslim friends against Modi… their attitude is even if our country goes to dogs let us target Modi… now they are trying to project BJP guys as rapists but they r not understanding the wrong message that’s being sent out to rest of world in name of targeting Modi. And as a first-hand information from IB [Intelligence Bureau], all this is being done by Islamic terrorist and xtian missionaries who are very active on social media…”

Many of these paranoid rants are not random. India’s social media – as in many other countries – have become prime means of mass manipulation. The mass media have either been managed or wilted in the face of a concerted online barrage, primarily from the BJP and its organised packs of social-media hounds who sniff out and go after viewpoints inimical to their ideology.

Trolls, fake news

The abilities of this lot were revealed in the past week when the investigative journalist Rana Ayyub – who wrote a book that laid bare the complicity of various politicians and bureaucrats in the 2002 Gujarat riots – was made the target of a particularly vicious attack. Ayyub is routinely abused by the Hindu Right, but this time they went a step further, creating and circulating fake porn videos, images and quotes, in which she appeared to be defending child rapists in the name of Islam, and expressing a hatred for India and Indians. These manipulated messages were so convincing that even her friends asked her why she had said these things. The tsunami of manufactured hate, of course, washed in many threats to gangrape and kill her.

Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, referred to hate speech “shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay”. Some of these fake-news outfits themselves masquerade as fact-checking institutions with murky links to power and are readily endorsed by politicians from the BJP.

In April, 13 Union ministers tweeted links to a website known to manipulate news; it emerged that the website was run by a company listed as the “technology and knowledge partner” for the prime minister’s book for students, Exam Warriors, that was released in February. Last week, it was revealed that a Hindu Right-winger, who proudly announced that he had cancelled an app-based taxi because the driver was Muslim, was followed by some Union ministers. In 2015, among the 150 “social-media influencers” whom Modi met were trolls noted for their abuse of women and the media. In Karnataka, actor Prakash Raj, a flagbearer for secularism who opposes Modi, is under constant attack from trolls and once escaped physical attack from BJP supporters.

The Congress has belatedly realised the power of social media in influencing the electorate and has caught up in that department. Although it is also guilty of manipulating images and news, it is nowhere as efficient or ruthless in inflaming religious passions. Mass manipulation is now an industry where tweets and views can be bought or sold by the thousands, using bots, fake handles and fake tweets.

One website in Bangalore that I gained access to said it could provide 1,000 tweets for Rs 2,000, or Rs 2 per tweet. “We can provide votes in bulk to significantly alter the results,” the company’s sales pitch said. “We can help alter the results of any polls.” It provided as an example a television poll, run by a Modi-leaning channel, it had altered: with the BJP and Congress in a dead heat in Karnataka, who between Rahul Gandhi or Modi could swing the vote? According to the poll, 76% chose Modi. The logic appeared dubious: in a previous poll, 72% of voters had apparently chosen the BJP, so where did the question of a dead heat come from? But logic, as we know, plays little part in an age of manipulation and radicalisation.

If the BJP wins Karnataka – either through an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) or by itself – the false and dangerous Hindu-under-siege theme may grow in volume and self-assurance in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If it loses Karnataka, that refrain may lose cachet and confidence – or the BJP may attempt to make its message more extreme. Either way, India is unlikely to be the same again.