With India’s election in full swing, Narendra Modi is getting desperate – and dangerous | Salil Tripathi (2024)

When Narendra Modi ran for prime minister for the first time in 2014, his overriding aim was to convince voters that he was a different man – no longer the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where, under his watch, more than 1,000 people were massacred in a communal pogrom in 2002. (A British government report found Modi “directly responsible” for not stopping the killing of Muslims; he has always denied culpability and was cleared of all charges by the supreme court.) Modi was going to be the man who would transform India by ushering in vikas, or economic development, for everyone.

His record as prime minister in the past decade belies that. Now the mask has fallen completely. In a recent campaign rally in Rajasthan, Modi made an exceptionally incendiary speech in which he claimed that his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had declared that Muslims had “the first claim” to the nation’s resources. This was distortion and exaggeration. The reference was to a speech that Singh had made in 2006 about India’s development priorities.

Singh had identified agriculture, irrigation, water resources, health, education and critical investment in rural infrastructure as priorities, and added that marginalised communities – including women, children, Dalits and minorities, “particularly” the Muslim minority – should be “empowered to share equitably” in the fruits of development. By saying “particularly” the Muslims, he gave an opportunity to his critics to say that he was singling out Muslims for preferential treatment. In his next sentence, he did say that “they” must have first claim on resources. An uproar inevitably followed, and the prime minister’s office clarified that he meant that the first claim on resources referred to priority areas for all marginalised groups. But the damage was done, and the more facile interpretation gained ground.

Driven primarily by cynical electoral calculations, Modi’s speech aimed to scare voters into thinking that a Congress government would be after their wealth. Modi added that he would protect India’s “mothers and sisters” whose wealth was in danger, singling out the coveted mangalsutra (sacred necklace) that married women wear to indicate their marital status. Modi’s implication was that Congress would take it away and redistribute it to “infiltrators” and those who have more children – veiled references to Muslims. (A BJP spokesperson said “infiltrators” referred to foreigners, not Indian Muslims.)

This is not dog-whistle politics, its meaning is audible to all Indians. It feeds into Hindu fears and is intended to arouse Hindus: it was dangerous and blatantly divisive. After thousands of voters complained that Modi’s speech violated the code of conduct for elections, the Election Commission of India sought a response from JP Nadda, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

The vehemence of Modi’s speech suggests that after 10 years in power, his government is running out of tricks and wants to ensure that the BJP’s core voters – angry, fundamentalist Hindus – won’t desert him. Modi has “delivered” many of the contentious issues that were on Hindu nationalists’ wish list: the supreme court has upheld the government’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status, his government has outlawed the Muslim practice of “instant divorce”, and the Rama temple has been built in Ayodhya after the supreme court ruled in Hindus’ favour.

The high-speed train he promised is nowhere near completion, but other trains that run faster than traditional locomotives have been introduced. There are swanky motorways and toll highways, though some with sparse traffic, bridges and airports. The wealthy praise “infrastructure development” and continue to support him.

But the fact remains that youth unemployment is at an all-time high; according to the International Labour Organization, 83% of India’s unemployed are in this group. (As with any finding critical of India, the government has disputed the report.) Hunger among the poor is chronic. As many as 800 million Indians rely on subsidised food rations from the government. The number of billionaires in Forbes’s list of the world’s wealthiest people shows an increasing number of Indians, but inequality has worsened significantly, and India today has greater income inequality than during the British Raj, according to the World Inequality Lab.

Worse, southern states are bitter because they are likely to lose influence in a future parliament if the next delimitation commission redraws boundaries, rewarding more populous states (typically in the north). The tax distribution system, too, is unfair, according to southern states, which have to cajole the federal government to act in a just and fair manner. Lately, the supreme court and other courts have complicated Modi’s best-laid plans, first by declaring the opaque electoral bonds system that his government implemented as unconstitutional and arbitrary. Some courts have begun granting bail or releasing human rights defenders and academics who for years have been jailed without being charged.

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Modi’s followers assert he will get more than 400 seats out of 543 this time, and predicting any election outcome is a fool’s errand. But the desperation is palpable – in one constituency in Modi’s home state, Gujarat, his candidate was declared elected unopposed after the Congress candidate was rejected for alleged discrepancies in his paperwork – the party has suggested foul play. Such events suggest anxiety that things may not be going as planned. Hence the discarding of the mask; hence an openly dangerous speech.

Meanwhile, Indian officials speak of the great carnival of democracy, and many in the west praise “the world’s largest democracy”. (More accurately, it is the world’s most populous country to hold elections regularly.) Western bankers and information technology pioneers are busy flattering and boosting India. At such a time, no amount of mild criticism from the US state department will get attention, nor would it get noticed that the overseas Indian status of a French journalist, Vanessa Dougnac, was revoked (she is married to an Indian), and an Australian reporter, Avani Dias, was told her visa would not be extended. Nitasha Kaul, a British academic of Indian origin, was denied entry into India.

Modi may still win the election, but the loss will be India’s.

  • Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York and is on the board of PEN International. His latest book, The Gujaratis, will be published this year

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

With India’s election in full swing, Narendra Modi is getting desperate – and dangerous | Salil Tripathi (2024)
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