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India: Will divisive rhetoric help or hurt Narendra Modi?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
May 1, 2024

With India in the midst of weekslong elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for his rousing speeches that critics view as a divisive attempt to get more votes.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addressing during the inauguration and foundation stone laying of various highway projects, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Modi's speeches have drawn criticism with India in the throes of a marathon electionImage: Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto/picture alliance

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has drawn criticism recently for invoking anti-Muslim rhetoric in mobilizing Hindu voters with India in the throes of a general election.

At a huge election rally in late April in Banswara, a city in the western state of Rajasthan, Modi delivered a polarizing speech in more ways than one, targeting the main opposition party, Congress.

Modi claimed that, if they came to power, the opposition would distribute India's wealth among "infiltrators" — provocative remarks widely seen as intended to shore up support from the party's majority Hindu voter base.

Hindu-Muslim tension as a campaign tool

"When they (Congress) were in power, they said Muslims have first right over the country's wealth," Modi said during his speech.

"They will take all your wealth and distribute it among those who have more children ... among infiltrators.

"Do you think your hard-earned money should be given to infiltrators? Would you accept this?"

Despite the outrage his remarks prompted, Modi doubled down on his statements a few days later at campaign rallies in Malda, West Bengal and Araria in Bihar, pulling the political discourse back to the divisive Hindu-Muslim line.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to remain in power.

But many were shocked by Modi's ramped-up rhetoric that Congress was going to redistribute social goods to Muslims.

Political analysts believe the rhetoric against Muslims is part of a strategy to mobilize Hindu voters, as the BJP leadership is troubled by signs of low to moderate turnout in the first two phases of voting and anti-incumbency sentiment.

The elections, which got underway on April 19, are being held across India in seven phases and will run until June 1. The results are due three days later. Modi is eyeing a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Is the outcome of the Indian general election already clear?

Veteran political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told DW that she believes Modi's speeches are a sign of concern from the BJP over potentially losing voters. 

"From my travels, I find that this is not a Hindu-Muslim election. But given the polling percentages, the BJP has upped the ante. To enthuse voters, they thought something had to be done so that the central discourse becomes this," she said.

Did the speeches break any election rules?

The growing response from opposition leaders and civil society to Modi's speeches has drawn attention to the rules laid out by the Election Commission of India (ECI). However, the monitor has so far declined to comment or act.

The ECI's code of conduct specifies that politicians cannot appeal to voters based on "caste" and "communal feelings," nor can they run campaigns that "aggravate differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension" between communities.

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge has described Modi's comments as "hate speech" and "a well-thought-out ploy to divert attention."

"I urge the ECI to take cognizance of this latest complaint and immediately launch proceedings against Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury called for an official complaint to be lodged against Modi for "inciting communal passions and hatred."

More than 90 former bureaucrats have also sent in a complaint to the ECI to take action against Modi for his communal speeches as provoking enmity against minorities, warning that further rhetoric will affect the environment for a free and fair poll.

The BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, the party's pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda has alienated religious minorities, along with ushering a marked increase in hate speech and violence targeting the nation's 210 million Muslims.

The defining credo of Modi's BJP since 1989 has been "Hindutva," a political ideology that promotes the "values" of the Hindu religion as being the cornerstone of Indian society and culture. However, critics say the BJP's aggressive Hindutva policies treat religious minorities as "second-class citizens."

"Anti-Muslim rhetoric is part of the BJP's journey, but during the current election campaign [things have] hit a new low," journalist and author Saba Naqvi told DW. "Once the campaign began, Modi turned to making the most loaded Hindu-Muslim speeches of his prime ministerial career."

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"On June 4, when votes are counted, we will learn whether the escalation of communal rhetoric will help or hurt the BJP," added Naqvi.

Others like Salil Tripathi, a political commentator and New York-based writer who has been following the election closely, said the BJP's "desperation" has driven it to try an old formula of Hindu polarization by generating the fear of a Muslim takeover of India.

"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," Tripathi told DW.

Another five phases of polling remain in this marathon election, and it is still unclear if the rhetoric will emotionally influence the electorate.

In the past, attempts at polarization have not brought electoral rewards for the 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," said Tripathi.

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Edited by: John Silk

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11