As the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies look set to form the government for another five years, the 2019 Lok Sabha election has sent out one clear message: Hindutva is now mainstream in India.
In 2014, the BJP fought the election on the promise of “vikas”, or development, and with Narendra Modi’s charisma. It got a clear majority of 282 of the 543 seats, with the National Democratic Alliance led by it totalling 336 seats.
In the five years of the Modi government, however, development took a back seat to toxic Hindutva endorsed by the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. There was a sharp rise in cow vigilantism, increasing violence against Muslims and Dalits and a deepening sense of fear and marginalisation among minority groups.
Far from assuaging the fear, the Modi government emboldened Hindutva hardliners in the BJP. Indeed, the extremists who won in 2014 are set to return with even bigger majorities now.
Leading the pack of Hindutva ideologues that voters are rewarding this election are Pragya Thakur, Sakshi Maharaj, Giriraj Singh and Anantkumar Hegde.
Here is what they have come to be known for and how well they are performing.
A five-time MP from Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada constituency, Hegde is the minister of state for skill development entrepreneurship. He has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as well as its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. He has a long history of making hateful comments against Muslims and Dalits.
In 2016, Hegde was booked for hate speech after he claimed, at a press conference, that “as long as there is Islam, there will be no peace in the world”. In January 2018, he triggered outrage after comparing Dalit protesters to “barking dogs”.
In January, Hegde deployed the Hindutva bogey of Hindu temples being converted into mosques by claiming the Taj Mahal in Agra used to be a Shiv temple called Tejo Mahalaya. When the Karnataka Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao criticised him for this, Hegde responded by calling him a “guy who ran behind a Muslim lady”.
Hegde won the 2014 election by a margin of 1.4 lakh votes and a vote share of 54.6%. He is doing even better this year: he defeated Anand Asnotikar of the Janata Dal (Secular) by over four lakh votes.
The parliamentarian from Bihar is the central minister for micro, small and medium enterprises. For the 2019 election, the BJP moved Giriraj Singh from Nawada constituency to Begusarai to take on Kanhaiya Kumar, the Communist Party of India candidate who rose to fame after being arrested for allegedly chanting “anti-national slogans” as a student union leader at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016.
Staunch in his Hindutva views, Giriraj Singh has repeatedly kicked up controversy by exhorting Hindus to “increase their population” so as to counter the growth of Muslims.
He has also asked people who do not support Modi to “go to Pakistan” and claimed the Supreme Court’s delay in delivering a verdict on the Babri Masjid dispute was making Hindus impatient.
In 2014, the Election Commission banned Giriraj Singh from campaigning in Bihar and Jharkhand after he made a series of communal remarks. But that did not stop him from doing it again. During his 2019 campaign, he targeted Muslims for taking up land for burials and for not wanting to chant Vande Mataram. He was booked for violating the model code of conduct.
In spite of this record and a strong campaign by Kanhaiya Kumar, Giriraj Singh is set to do even better than in the last election. In 2014, Giriraj Singh won Nawada by a margin of 1.4 lakh votes and a vote share of 44.1%. This time, he polled 56.53% of the vote share – more than two and a half times Kumar’s 22.02% – and won by a margin of over four lakh votes.
A Hindutva activist who is a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast case, Thakur was handpicked by the BJP to contest against the Congress grandee Digvijaya Singh in Bhopal. The BJP was widely criticised for fielding a terror accused for the first time in India’s electoral history.
Thakur is currently out on bail but her ongoing trial hasn’t stopped her from making a series of provocative statements on the campaign trail. In April, she claimed former Mumbai Anti Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare – who was killed during the 2008 Mumbai attack – had died because she cursed him. Karkare had investigated Thakur in connection with the Malegaon bombing.
She expressed “extreme pride” for having played a role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. On May 16, she called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse a “patriot”. The statement triggered outrage but the consequences for Thakur were light: the BJP merely distanced itself from her remarks and claimed it would “talk” to her about it. On her part, Thakur said she would take a three-day vow of silence to atone for hurting people’s sentiments.
As far as the 2019 election is concerned, Thakur’s penance appears to have paid off. Despite being a first-time Lok Sabha candidate, she defeated Singh, two-time chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, by over three and a half lakh votes.
A Hindu religious leader with 34 criminal cases against him, Maharaj served as an MP from Mathura and Farrukhabad in the 1990s before being elected from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014.
He was acquitted of gang rape in 2011 for lack of evidence but remains an accused in a 2013 case of murder. He is also an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case. Like Thakur, he has called Godse a patriot. Like Giriraj Singh, he has stoked fears of Muslims outnumbering Hindus and urged Hindus to have at least four children each. He has advocated for punishing cow slaughter and religious conversion with the death penalty and described madrasas as being “training grounds for terrorism”.
Yet, he has repeatedly won elections. He won Unnao by 3.1 lakh votes in 2014 and a vote share of 43.1%. He did even better this time, defeating the Samajwadi Party’s Arun Shanker Shukla by over four lakh votes.