In the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there is a shift in emphasis from development to national security. The 2014 manifesto had opened with promises to address price rise, employment, corruption and black money. In 2019, the first section of the manifesto bears the Trumpian headline, “Nation First”. The matters grouped under it conjure up the idea of a country under siege. It is signed off with an ominous quote from Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “India supports peace but the country will not hesitate to take any steps required for national security”.
If Modi played the aspirational tea-seller in 2014, his chosen role for 2019 is that of “chowkidar”, or watchman, anxiously patrolling the borders of the nation state, picking out anti-nationals within and without. In a way, this manifesto is the natural culmination of the last few years, the sabre rattling and the politicisation of the armed forces that gained ground first with the so-called surgical strikes along the Line of Control in 2016, then with the Pulwama attack and the airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan.
The manifesto also tells you whom to fear. As it speaks of strengthening defences, it invokes external enemies waiting at the border. As it proposes to compile a National Register of Citizens in various parts of the country in order to weed out “infiltrators”, or “illegal immigrants” lurking among genuine Indian citizens, it suggests such enemies may have invaded already. In Assam, the project to update the citizen’s register for the first time since 1951 has already pushed the state to a brink of a humanitarian crisis where thousands could become stateless. The BJP now promises to transmit the paranoias of a border state and the anxieties of Assamese sub-nationalism, which has long believed itself under threat from outsiders, to other parts of the country. As the manifesto reiterates the BJP’s long-stated aims of abrogating Article 370 and Article 35(A), it casts the special status and autonomies guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution as a threat to national security.
Fear-mongering aside, the BJP’s focus on national security draws fresh attention to the party’s attempt to define who may be counted as an Indian citizen. It begins with exclusion. But then, inevitably, the BJP’s imagination of citizenship is inflected by religion. The National Register of Citizens is to separate the chaff from the grain, but non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan may still be absorbed into the citizenry. This would be done by resurrecting the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which lapsed in the Rajya Sabha this February.
Development still features prominently, but the BJP’s vision of a “New India” seems to be in the service of a militant, exclusionary nationalism. A closer look at which words occur most frequently in the manifesto may reveal the BJP’s preoccupations. “Develop” and “govern” are among the most used words, but so are “India”, “nation”, “country” and “state”. “Secure” ranks above “education”, “women” and “farmer”. “Democracy” is one of the least used words.