On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged that the Congress president Rahul Gandhi was fighting a second Lok Sabha seat from Wayanad in Kerala because he was “scared of contesting from constituencies dominated by the majority population”. Wayanad, a Lok Sabha seat where Hindus are under 50% of the population, was chosen in addition to Gandhi’s current constituency in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi, claimed Modi, since “they are forced to take refuge in places where the majority is in a minority”.
With that speech at a rally in Wardha in Maharashtra, Modi was not only attacking the Congress chief – by drawing attention to Wayanad’s religious demographics, with a higher-than-average number of Muslims and Christians, the prime minister was attacking India’s secular fabric.
Unfortunately, Modi’s dog-whistle rhetoric was by no means unusual. Almost the entire leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party is running an election campaign that serves to deepen religious cleavages. The Representation of the People Act explicitly prohibits an “appeal by a candidate...to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language”.
At a rally on Sunday, for instance, the party’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, accused the former Samajwadi Party government in the state of trying to “curb people’s emotions” after a man had been beaten to death in 2015, suspected by the mob of eating beef. As Adityanath delivered the speech, the chief accused in the lynching case was seated in the front row, cheering for him.
A day before, BJP president Amit Shah made it clear that if elected, the party would amend citizenship laws on communal lines in order to favour “Hindus, Buddhist and Sikhs”. This would be in keeping with the party’s ideological position maintaining that these three religions have India as a birthplace, but Islam and Christianity have alien origins.
The nature of the BJP campaign is disappointing – but it is not surprising. For the past five years, the BJP has sought to engineer a Hindu majoritarian style of politics in India. Its tactics have ranged from attempting to electorally marginalise Muslims to patronising communal violence, especially around the emotive issue of cow protection. This brand of politics has reached an apogee with the BJP explicitly using majoritarian communalism to seek votes in the general election.
The BJP’s campaign is a marked depature from the centrepiece of its 2014 pitch to Indians: that it would bring vikas, or development. The futility of that promise is obvious from the statistics. Unemployment is at a 45-year high and farm incomes are the lowest they have been in nearly two decades.
The 2019 election should have had an almost razor-like focus on solving the grave economic problems facing the world’s largest democracy. Instead, India’s ruling party is working to create new problems by pitting Indians against each other.