Indian election results – Why and What’s Next?

Taj Mahal - India

On May 23, 2019, the weeks-long elections in India delivered a stunning victory for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A second term for a Hindutvadi fascist party that pampers and promotes a Hindu majoritarian agenda defying India’s secular constitutional order is bound to have impacts on India’s socio-cultural fabric and institutional framework.

As noted by I.A. Rehman, peace and human rights advocate and a veteran communist, “By giving Modi’s BJP a landslide victory, the Indian electorate has dealt its country a blow that might take a long time to recover from. The outcome of the polls has virtually buried India’s ideal of secularism and tightened the hold of crooks and the vulgar rich over the house of the people. The main plank of the BJP’s election strategy was a pledge to complete India’s transformation into a Hindu state. By backing Modi, the voters have indicated that their belief in secularism was only skin-deep. They have given Modi license to tyrannize the minorities, and settle the Kashmir issue through brute force and chicanery.”

It is probably too early to say what these election results might herald but they are already fuelling anxieties among the social and economic elites, let alone 190 million Muslims that call India their ancestral home, about an impending transformation of the country.

Last week, Mohammad Sana Ullah, a 30-year veteran of the Indian army, was sent into a detention camp after a Foreigners Tribunal in Kamrup district of Assam state declared that he was not an Indian citizen. This is not the first case of Muslim army or police officers questioned for their citizenship in the state, which last year declared four million people illegal, effectively stripping them of citizenship. A final list of citizenship is expected to be published in July of 2019.

The lynching of Muslim minorities has become a regular feature in Modi’s India. In April a 68-year-old Shaukat Ali of Assam was lynched by Hindutvadi mob for selling beef, which is not yet banned in the state. They thrashed him and also proceeded to force feed him pork. The incident took place on April 7 in Assam’s Biswanath Chariali town. Such vigilante activism by Hindutvadi fascists is nothing new. One may recall that in 2015, a Muslim man named Mohammed Akhlaq and his son Danish were attacked by a Hindutvadi mob in Dadri after being accused of storing beef in their refrigerator. Akhlaq died on the spot; Danish, who was preparing for the Indian administrative services, survived the lynching after two brain surgeries.

In an interview published in 2018, an exasperated Danish Akhlaq asked Indian leaders: “Do you want to make India a Hindu country? Would you kill all the Muslims or turn them out of the country? Please tell us to what extent you would go to finish Muslims?

Danish’s fear permeates life for all Muslims in India. In recent years, we have seen an explosion of ethnic and religious mob violence. This year’s election campaign fanned the flames of intolerance against minority Muslims as never seen before since 1947.

On April 11, the first day of voting, the ruling BJP sent out a tweet: “We will ensure implementation of NRC [National Register of Citizens] in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” The tweet was a quote from the party president, Amit Shah, who has just been named the Home Affairs Minister of India. The use of the word “infiltrator” was a not-so-veiled reference to Muslims. Soon after, Shah took his invective against Muslims a step further, promising to throw the “termites” in the Bay of Bengal.

As noted by Indian journalist Rana Ayyub (and author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up), the outrage and hate against Muslims are not just spreading like an epidemic on WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms; they seep into daily lives of most Indian Muslims. Her own brother, who works for a multinational corporation, was recently forced to vacate his apartment in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Mumbai, the city where he grew up — simply because of bigotry.

It should be noted that Amit Shah was accused in 2010 of having orchestrated the extrajudicial killings of three Indians. (As proof of Amit Shah’s involvement in the crimes, the Central Bureau of Investigation presented phone call records, which showed that Shah had been in touch with the accused police officers when the victims were in their illegal custody. Amit Shah was arrested on 25 July 2010 in connection with the Sohrabuddin case. He was charged with the murder, extortion, and kidnapping among other charges.)

There is no doubt that the BJP and its supporters have been propagating an aggressive and grotesque brand of nationalism designed to consolidate a fragmented Hindu identity by othering and demonizing minorities, esp. Muslims. Interestingly, India has the world’s second-largest population of Muslims who have remained grossly underrepresented in political life and in private and public institutions. They have lagged behind nearly all other disenfranchised communities on economic and educational indicators and remained vulnerable to patriarchal and sectarian prejudices. Hate crimes against them go unpunished, emboldening the criminals.

Although they comprise over 14% of the population, Muslims have less than 2% representation in the government services and only 29 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha (Parliament). For decades, the majority of political parties have exploited the Muslim minority as a vote bank without addressing the wider, more urgent needs of ordinary Muslims. As far as 2019 is concerned, even though the campaign was marked by multiple hateful statements and provocations, the question of Muslims’ representation was almost completely absent for the simple reason that no party chose to talk about it. The BJP did not – for obvious reasons of being exclusively for the Hindu majority. In rare exceptions, when they claimed inclusiveness in a word they contradicted themselves indeed, refusing to nominate Muslim candidates.

The Congress remained silent on the Muslim issue, too, for tactical reasons. They did not want to be seen as a party sympathetic to the Muslims. Gilles Verniers of Ashoka University explains in the Hindustan Times, “Ever since Sonia Gandhi’s infamous statement in March 2018 to the effect that the Congress ought to dispel the notion that it is a pro-Muslim party, the party has virtually stopped raising issues concerning minorities. It has not made the violence that Muslims have been subjected to over the past years a significant campaign point. Lastly, regional parties – with the exception of small formations like the AUDF, the AIMIM or the IUML – have also not been particularly vocal in defending Muslims or raising matters of particular interest to Muslims.”

One wonders how this could happen in the land of Gandhi! Did the civil society fail to warn the people of erosion of democracy in the so-called ‘largest democracy’ in the globe where the lives of minorities are deemed unimportant?

Writing for Al-Jazeera in her must-read article “The Indian elite and the erosion of democracy”, Pragya Tiwari offers an answer: “Indian democracy is not under threat merely because majoritarian forces are gaining ground. Majoritarian forces have gained ground because democracy has been under threat. And the Indian elite, whose members have had disproportionate access to education, resources, and opportunities in India, have let that happen.” “The liberal elite, including the relatively small part of it that is Muslim, has largely remained apathetic to the predicament of minorities for decades. They have failed not only to follow in the footsteps of India’s founding fathers and articulate an idea of Indian secularism that would take root, but also to counter the rampant bigotry in their own circles.
This inaction on part of the liberal elite has paved the way for hate speech to dominate the political discourse today and fuel attacks against minorities. Upper-class liberals have responded to the proliferation of hate crime by adopting slogans like “Not In My Name” and directing their disapproval solely towards the ruling dispensation. The rot, however, runs deeper.”

She continues, “Today, human life in India is cheap because the criminal justice system is broken, and the rule of law is far from firm.” For decades the liberal elite, who have had privileged access to justice, has thought little to push for necessary reforms that might have mended a broken system that preys upon its own people and inoculated the country against social division and upheaval.

“They have turned a blind eye to endemic delays in the delivery of justice and judicial manipulation,” writes Tiwari. “As a result, perpetrators of crimes of various scale have not only enjoyed impunity but have also been able to infiltrate the political system.”

As hinted above, Indian democracy has become a joke when today criminals like Amit Shah get elected from places like the Gandhi Nagar! Also note that some 43 percent of the newly-elected members (i.e., 233 of the 539 MPs elected in the recently concluded elections) to the lower house of Parliament face criminal charges, up from 34 percent in 2014. They hail from all major political parties and have among their ranks prominent names like terror suspect Pragya Singh Thakur from BJP and Dean Kuriakose from the Congress party who stands accused in some 200 different criminal cases. [Not surprisingly, the ruling BJP tops the list with 116 parliamentarians facing criminal charges.]

Prime Minister Modi inducted Pragya Thakur (a Hindu priestess from the province of Madhya Pradesh) who is a leading member of the ultra-right fascist organization Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) into his party. He gave her an election ticket to contest in Bhopal, one of the most coveted seats in the North Indian belt, which over the past two decades has witnessed multiple episodes of intercommunal tensions. She easily won that seat. It is worth noting that a week before her constituency went to vote, Thakur hailed Nathuram Godse — the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi — as a patriot!

Thakur is known as a suspect facing terror charges in relation to a deadly bomb blast in the city of Malegaon, Maharashtra state which targeted the Muslim minority killing.

On the morning of September 29, 2008, two explosive devices fitted into a motorcycle exploded in the city killing ten people and injuring hundreds. The motorcycle belonged to Thakur and in a taped conversation with a co-accused submitted to the court as evidence, she was heard saying: “If my vehicle was used for the blast, how come so few people (Muslims) died, why didn’t you park it in a crowd?”

Besides the Malegaon incident of 2008 for which she was arrested as one of the prime accused, Thakur was also investigated for her role in the 2006 blasts in the same city during the Muslim festival Shab-e-Baraat that took 40 lives. Her name also appeared in investigations into a series of deadly incidents in 2007 – the bombing of Samjhauta Express, the Makka Masjid blast, and Ajmer Sharif shrine explosion – all of which targeted minorities and aimed at stirring intercommunal unrest in the country.

According to Ayyub, the defining image of the Indian election results was not of Modi’s speech in Delhi; it was of Pragya Singh Thakur, dressed in saffron robes, waving at a large crowd after a massive electoral victory. She swears allegiance to a radical Hindu outfit called Abhinav Bharat that aims to establish a Hindu rashtra (state) and the supremacy of Hindus not just in India but also extending to the neighboring states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Similarly, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot sees Thakur as the “symbol” of the 2019 election, in which nebulous fringe elements of the Hindutva ideology have been mainstreamed.

It is not difficult to understand the corrosive effects of a failed democracy that elects bigots and criminals! The ruling BJP has been accused of its infringements on the central bank, the Central Bureau of Investigation CBI), the constitutional court of the country and the election commission. The latter came under the spotlight when it was accused of favoring the BJP in the recently concluded elections. Yet those who have followed Indian electoral politics closely would know that much-needed reforms that could have safeguarded its independence were ignored for years even before 2014.

As I see it, Modi’s election win is a victory of Hindutvadi bigotry and intolerance. With each day of this long election campaign, Modi’s BJP moved from dog whistle to brazen anti-Muslim polarization. Muslims were falsely depicted as ‘outsiders’ or ‘infiltrators’ who needed to be eliminated as ‘termites.’ And sadly, his party’s candidates and agenda have been immensely rewarded by the voters! Even in the states like Assam and West Bengal with a significant Muslim population where BJP had struggled to make inroads, the party won in double digits. The National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the party introduced in Assam to throw out infiltrators, a reference to a sizeable population of Bengali Muslims, has been effective for the party. The BJP has won a majority of the seats in Assam. In Uttar Pradesh, the story similar. BJP won more than sixty out of the eighty Lok Sabha seats there. In both these states, the campaign centered around BJP’s newly amended Citizenship Amendment bill which allows citizenship to Hindus in neighboring states but not to Bengali-speaking Muslims whose forefathers had settled since the British era.

The defining idea of Narendra Modi’s landslide 2019 victory is Hindutva, the ideology that defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. That could assert itself toward a dangerous conclusion in the next five years if left unchecked. Already Muslims are lynched daily and many places with Muslim names have been changed to Hindu names to show the ‘Hindu-only’ direction that India is heading to. This is not the sign of a healthy democracy but that of a rotten, reincarnated fascism, which is disconcerting and needs to be defeated before it is too late.

Modi’s victory on May 23 will be seen as a mandate to amplify bigotry and intolerance and the “othering” of Indian Muslims in a way that will affect its so-called secular democracy beyond repair. As appositely put by Ayyub it is not just the excesses of the ruling party and its marginalization of Muslims that is worrisome; it’s that many citizens of India have found this new language of hate liberating and acceptable. If they allow themselves to be blinded permanently, Indian democracy – no matter how imperfect and illiberal – will simply cease to exist.