Modiʹs credo of divide and rule

India is following an international trend: with the victory of the Indian Peopleʹs Party or BJP, we are again witnessing the success of a party that can clearly be located on the extreme right of the political spectrum and that is at the same time courted by international companies and economic heavyweights. By Dominik Muller

By Dominik Müller

It is members of the nationʹs ethnic minorities who will pay the price for this success. Already during the last legislative period under Prime Minister Narendra Modi (BJP), we saw a clear increase in the number of lynchings carried out against Muslims and Dalits (previously referred to as "untouchables"). Many of these killings go unpunished, in many cases the perpetrators were even hailed as heroes by BJP politicians.

News that the BJP under Narendra Modi would yet again secure the majority in the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house of parliament, prompted the immediate gain of bonds and the Indian rupee. The 2014 elections had already marked a turning point: For 30 years, no party in India had succeeded in securing an absolute majority. Now, the BJP has consolidated that majority by a further 21 parliamentary seats: from 282 to 303 seats.

This despite the fact that during the last legislative period, the Modi government did not even come close to fulfilling its declared election promise under the slogan "Ache Dhin", or "The Good Days Are Coming": the devaluation of a large amount of Indian cash, mandated and carried out effectively overnight in late 2016, plunged first and foremost the poorest members of society into even greater poverty.

Whatever happened to the promised Indian job miracle?

The introduction of sales tax and VAT put particular pressure on street trading – after farming the populationʹs most important source of income. The farmersʹ debt burden continued to increase and is viewed as the key driver in the perpetual rise in the number of suicides in India. 600 million of the 1.3 billion Indians are under 25 – but the job miracle they were promised has failed to materialise.

Even the mobilisation of large-scale protests against government policies clearly did little to influence the poll: the major farmersʹ protests last December and the two-day general strike in January, in which around 180 million Indians took part.

So despite all this, how did the BJP succeed in winning the elections – although in December it lost regional polls in three states thought to be a shoe-in?

BJP supporters electioneering in the Indian city of Calcutta (photo: IANS)
Modi is everywhere: Narendra Modi is omnipresent in the public sphere and social media: the BJP is better than any other party at harnessing the power of Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp for its own ends. The same goes for private electronic media and its huge Indian audience: first and foremost "Network 18" with its television programmes, magazines and Internet pages, which became the de facto propaganda machine for the BJP

Firstly, through a strongly personalised election campaign customised to Modi. Over recent months he made around 200 appearances in which he made no mention of his bad performance and instead of "development" and "Ache Dhin", switched to the keyword "security". The rhetorically skillful Prime Minister has always preferred to appear in public in this manner, while not even allowing interviews with critical journalists and not facing questions from opposition politicians in parliament.

Narendra Modi – supreme "guardian"

In doing so, Modi presents himself as supreme “guardian”; together with his associates he stylised the Hindu majority as the victim of Islamist conspiracies and terrorist attacks controlled from Pakistan.

Secondly, the first-past-the-post voting system and the weak opposition contributed to the BJP success. Most of the 80 percent of Indians assigned to the Hindu religion are not supporters of the BJP: of the 604 million people who cast their ballot, a third voted for the Hindu nationalists. In view of the fragmented and weak opposition this was enough to attain an absolute majority.  The Congress Party was able to capture a larger share of the vote in comparison to 2014, but its performance was a far cry from the successes of the past.

Ironically, its leading candidate Rahul Gandhi tried to win around voters with avowals to Hinduism: during the election campaign, he hurried from temple to temple and avoided all mention of the word "Muslims". The Left Front, traditionally strong in the states of West Bengal and Kerala, suffered its greatest losses to date. The performance of many regional parties was also weaker than in previous years.

Modiʹs media propanda machine

The third reason is probably Narendra Modiʹs omnipresence in the public sphere and social media: the BJP is better than any other party at harnessing the power of Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp for its own ends. The same goes for private electronic media and its huge Indian audience: first and foremost "Network 18" with its television programmes, magazines and Internet pages, which became the de facto propaganda machine for the BJP. Just a few days after the Prime Minister assumed power in 2014, the Modi confidante and multi-billionaire Mukesh Ambani purchased Indiaʹs largest media company for 700 million dollars.

Fourthly, the BJP is today one of the richest, if not the richest political party in the world. This is partly due to a party financing law passed in 2017. The law may have limited cash donations to parties from around 250 to 25 Euros. The official reason given for this was to combat corruption. However, now every citizen and every corporate body based in India – so in other words also foreign companies based in India – can send large amounts of money to the party of their choice through the National Bank and acquire whatʹs known as "electoral bonds".

Modi challenger Rahul Gandhi (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Rahul Gandhi – the biggest loser in India's recent election: the Congress Partyʹs top candidate was the last person who was going to win over voters with a commitment to Hinduism. Nevertheless, he insisted on hurrying from temple to temple during the election campaign and avoided mentioning the word "Muslim" once

During the months of March and April alone, 500 million US dollars were moved in this way almost exclusively to the BJP and as large-scale donations. As a comparison: Between 2005 and 2018, so within 13 years, the "big five" – Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft – donated around the same amount to U.S. Congress. But in contrast to the U.S., in India donors retain public anonymity. Only the government knows who is paying what to whom.

Legislative bonuses for industrial magnates

Modi knows how to say thank you: new laws further limiting trade union activities or permitting environmentally-damaging industrial projects and their associated land expropriation without vexatious obstacles, have long been in the planning.

In order that the resulting conflicts do not become a political conflagration, the Modi government is on the one hand deploying repressive tactics: many political activists are already in jail on flimsy charges and the accounts of organisations such as Greenpeace India, Amnesty International India and many other Indian environmental and human rights organisations have been frozen.

But first and foremost, the BJP is focused on a policy of "divide and rule" along religious identity lines. A policy already deployed in the past by the nationʹs former British colonial power to enable it, as the minority, to rule the majority. For example, it is an open secret that the Hindu nationalists intend to strike secularism from the Indian constitution and officially declare India as "nation of Hindus". The "worldʹs largest democracy" looks to be well on the way to abandoning this designation.

Dominik Muller

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon