A third term for Hindu nationalism?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks serious as he stands at a lectern covered in flowers
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – pictured here during an election campaign event in West Bengal in mid March – and his Bharatiya Janata Party have ruled India with an absolute majority since 2014 (image: Subrata Goswami/DW)

As the world's largest democracy gets ready to vote in the upcoming general election, Narendra Modi and his BJP look set to win a third consecutive term in power. Critics warn, however, that if the BJP wins another election victory, it will continue reshaping the country into a Hindu state.

By Dominik Müller

The first states will start voting in India's general election on 19 April. All votes are expected to be counted by 4 June. The official line is that the economy is flourishing and growth has helped lift many Indians out of poverty. 

Farmers and agricultural workers are not, however, among those who benefit from the policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In terms of numbers alone, they have a significant role to play: 44 per cent – just under half of India's population – lives off the primary sector, in other words mainly from agriculture, forestry and fishery. By comparison, the average for the European Union is just two per cent. 

Just as they did in the run-up to the 2019 elections, many of the organisations and unions representing this group are currently protesting in New Delhi. Their demands include a minimum support price (MSP) for their products. Contractual agriculture and powerful purchasers – above all supermarket chains – are pushing down prices for producers. "If there was an MSP guarantee for our crops, we would have never fallen into debt," farmers explained at protests in Delhi in mid-March

Debt is one of the principal factors driving farmers and agricultural workers to despair: according to official statistics, more than 10,000 of them take their own lives every year, and that number is rising. 

Farmers' protests

There were also major farmers' protests before the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, which even included a "no vote for the BJP" campaign. Even so, five years ago, the BJP managed to increase its vote share and its presence in the lower house despite the fact that it hadn't kept the manifesto promises it had previously made under the slogan "Ache Dhin" – the good days are coming. Quite the opposite, in fact: without any notice, the government effectively devalued a large proportion of the cash circulating in India overnight, plunging above all the poorer members of society into great hardship. 

The new goods and services tax system hit street vendors especially hard. After agriculture, street trading is the population's most important source of income. At that time, 600 million Indians were under the age of 25. The job-creation miracle they were promised also failed to materialise. 

The BJP and its supporters above all used verbal and sometimes also physical attacks on the Muslim minority, which numbers more than 170 million Indians, to distract people from their responsibility for the social upheaval. After the 2019 election came the tightening of citizenship rights for Muslims in particular and, in 2020, the laying of the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya

Unemployment remains high – as does inflation – and investment is falling. Alongside South Africa, India is the country with the greatest income and wealth inequality in the world. But there is no mention of this in the BJP's current election campaign, which it launched with a nationalist religious event.

On 22 January 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, dressed in a golden kurta like a high priest, led the consecration of the controversial Ram temple in Ayodhya in a formal ceremony. Many Hindus believe that the site of the temple is the birthplace of the revered deity Ram. In 1992, the destruction of the Babri mosque, which had previously stood on the site for five centuries, led to major unrest in which around 2,000 people died. 

Men hold flags and an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ceremony marking the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the consecration of Ram Mandir (the Ram temple) in Ayodhya was the "beginning of a new era". The temple was built on the site where the Babri mosque had previously stood for five centuries before being demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992 (image: Ab Rauoof Ganie/DW)

The temple-mosque controversy of Ayodhya

The BJP kept the controversy over this piece of land simmering in the years that followed and turned it into an issue of national political significance. In 2019, the supreme court finally decided that Hindus had the right to build their temple on the disputed plot of land. Radical Hindu groups compared its significance to Mecca for Muslims or the Vatican for Christians. At the inauguration of the temple, which cost the equivalent of €200 million to build, Modi was accompanied by Hindu priests in a religious ceremony. 

Thousands of guests watched the event in person, with hundreds of millions following the live broadcast online and on television. It was the "beginning of a new era," Modi declared. "Our Lord Ram has arrived after unprecedented patience, countless sacrifices, renunciations, and penance," he said, adding that the nation had risen "above the mentality of slavery". Modi and many of his followers regard Hindus as the victims of centuries of oppression by the Moghul rulers and Islam.

One of the richest parties in the world

Today, the BJP is one of the richest parties in the world – maybe even the richest. This has been partly brought about by a law passed in 2017 on the financing of political parties. The limit on cash donations to parties was reduced from the equivalent of €250 to €25 to combat corruption – so the official line went. Now, however, every citizen and every corporate body with a base in India, including foreign companies with a branch in the country, can give many times that amount to the party of their choice via the State Bank of India and buy so-called "electoral bonds". 

In March and April 2019 alone, in the run-up to the last election to the lower house, US$500 million came in via this route, almost exclusively for the BJP and in the form of major donations. In comparison, it took 13 years (between 2005 and 2018) for the "big five" companies – Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook – to donate a similar amount to the US Congress. But unlike in the USA, donors in India remain anonymous to the public. Only the State Bank of India and the government know who is buying bonds for which party. By February 2024, bonds worth a total of US$2 billion had been purchased. By far the biggest beneficiary was the BJP

On 15 February, however, the supreme court ruled that this system went against the constitution, since anonymous electoral bonds violate the right to freedom of information. The sale of further bonds was prohibited. 

Some observers regard the supreme court's judgement as a sign that an independent justice system is still alive and functioning. But Christophe Jaffrelot, professor of South Asian politics at Sciences Po in Paris and King's College London, who has been studying India for decades, cautions against overestimating this judgement. He points to the fact that many of the court's controversial decisions in recent years – including those relating to permission to build the temple in Ayodhya, the restriction of partial-autonomy status for the regions of Jammu and Kashmir, and the watering down of the freedom of information law – went entirely the BJP's way. 

Petitions challenging the disputed new citizenship law have also been stuck in limbo for four years. "So, we really have a judiciary that is not what we used to remember," Jaffrelot said in an interview with the Indian news portal The Wire, adding that the Supreme Court of India had been "the most powerful judiciary in the world and admired across the globe." 

Politicians like to call India the "world's largest democracy", but if the BJP wins this election, it will continue reshaping the country into a Hindu state. And things are looking good for the BJP: no other party can compete with its financial resources. What's more, the BJP now controls all the important electronic media: NDTV, a broadcaster with high viewer figures that has been critical of the BJP, was taken over by the Adani Group in 2022. The billionaire Gautam Adani, whose corporation is the largest private company in the world running coal mines and coal-fired power stations, was one of Narendra Modi's earliest backers.

Arvind Kejriwal looks serious as he is seen through the window of a car being driven to court in Delhi, India, 28 March 2024
Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and chief minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, was arrested on 21 March. The opposition accuses Prime Minister Narendra Modi of wanting to sideline political opponents in the run-up to the election (image: Hindustan Times/IMAGO)

Opposition politician behind bars

In addition, one of the most important opposition leaders in the country is now behind bars. Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, the Common Man's Party), chief minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and the face of the one-time anti-corruption movement, was arrested on 21 March, accused by the financial crime agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), of irregularities in the issuing of alcohol sale licences. On 1 April, a court in India extended his judicial detention until 15 April at the earliest.

Until then, Kejriwal is not permitted to take part in any election campaign events. He is one of the most important spokespersons for the opposition alliance of 27 parties and organisations that have joined forces in opposition to the BJP. 

The Aam Aadmi Party has denied all accusations, saying that Kejriwal faces trumped-up charges. For its part, the BJP denies exerting any influence on the ED. According to the Indian daily newspaper Indian Express, however, 95 per cent of the cases the ED has brought since the BJP came to power have targeted members of the opposition.

Dominik Müller

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin