Today kicks off the six-week long general election in India and opinion polls indicate that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his reigning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), may win another term.
This doesn’t come as a surprise: Modi’s likeable personality has enabled him to charm millions of Indians worldwide. According to a recent poll conducted by Lokniti, Modi’s popularity ratings have risen to peak levels. By precariously using Hindu nationalism as a political tool—mixing politics and policies with religion and ethics—Modi is shaping India’s national identity to match his party’s religious views.
And it’s posing a huge threat to India’s democratic values.
Hindutva as Extremist Ideology
Currently, the BJP propagates Hindutva, the extremist right-wing ideology of Hindu nationalism. Hindutva envisions India—a secular country—as a “Hindu first” nation, dividing it on the basis of religion and disrupting its democracy.
Over the past few years, Hindutva has contributed to countless violent outbreaks against minority communities, including anti-Christian attacks last Christmas, lynchings of Muslim dairy and cattle traders by “cow protection” vigilantes and “Love Jihad” harassment and killings. As a result, India ranked as a flawed democracy at 41st place in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index, down from 32nd place in 2016.
Politically incentivized tensions, mainly between Hindus and Muslims, have helped major parties aligned with Hindu nationalism (such as the BJP) gain votes during election periods. For instance, around the 2014 elections, Modi condemned India’s beef export industry by referring to Muslim cattle traders as “smugglers.” Since Hindus deem cows sacred and killing cows and consuming beef is banned in most states, Modi’s rhetoric empowered Hindutva-supporting bovine vigilante groups to attack and terrorize Muslim traders in Gujarat. Further heightening conflict, Modi famously pledged to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri Mosque (a promise that hasn’t yet been fulfilled). This campaign played a part in the BJP winning an absolute majority in 2014.
Modi’s electoral dominance has become dangerous for religious minorities who are classified as “second-class citizens.” Ahead of the votes, there are rising fears that this model is being replicated across the nation.
Media and State Control
Freedom of the press declined dramatically between 2014 and 2017 in India. Under Modi’s regime, media owners have been pressured into promoting Hindu nationalist propaganda, undermining their credibility.
During the CobraPost sting operation last May, a total of 27 news organizations were prepared to use “black money” to promote Hindutva and polarize voters in favor of the BJP for the 2019 elections. Of these, Vineet Jain of The Times Group was recorded weighing up how these transactions could be conducted.
Since the present government assumed office, Modi has pumped 4,300 crore rupees (over £500 million) of taxpayer money into political patronage, specifically in adverts and publicity. Though the media receives state privileges in exchange for cheap print editorial content, the Prime Minister uses this investment to dominate the news industry—surveilling and intercepting stories critical of his policies, governing style or Hindutva. As a result, these intimidation techniques and restrictions on reporting aim to silence the Indian media and other voices that challenge this hegemonic way of thinking.
It doesn’t stop there. Opposing activists have been arrested and journalists have resigned from news channels (e.g. Milind Khandekar and Punya Prasun Bajpa left ABP News as primetime show Masterstroke was “selectively interrupted”). Modi’s administration even threatened numerous reporters and television anchors with physical harm and abused them on social media. Some journalists have received threats of gang rape from social media trolls (including Rana Ayyub, a Muslim reporter who alleged the government’s complicity in anti-Muslim violence during the 2002 riots), which has raised concerns among U.N. experts. In other extreme cases, such as Gauri Lankesh who prominently criticized right-wing Hindu extremism, journalists have been intentionally killed by nationalists in the name of religion.
Due to the growth of self-censorship in mainstream media, India is now considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists.
Modi’s Foreign Policy Vision
Before February, Modi toned down the Hindutva agenda to present himself as a person who reduces hostility with India’s neighboring countries. Despite this attempt, the recent bomb attack in Pulwama has heightened tensions between India and Pakistan (although Modi’s response conveniently boosted his popularity around election time), and the two countries are now on the brink of war over issues in Kashmir. Consequently, this re-emerging conflict has threatened the stability and security of the South Asia region.
While Modi advocates for globalization, he’ll face limitations in engaging with the international community since he’s only selling India to Indians, and not the world.
To move the country in the right direction, India must first be re-built and strengthened. The nation must understand and reject Modi’s opportunistic manipulation of Hindutva. Next, actors responsible for curtailing freedom of expression and “antinational” voices must be held accountable. Finally, there needs to be an uproar through grassroots advocacy and active campaigning to eradicate the use of religion in politics.
To establish best democratic practice, there’s space for dialogue between the Prime Minister, BJP and citizens of India to fairly scrutinize the extent to which Modi’s 2014 campaign promises have been achieved. Collectively, they can create a stronger country, and improve foreign relations, by making solving issues of discrimination and inequalities on the basis of religion, ethnicity and caste.