Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Modi should seek to unite, not divide, Indians

As the BJP's economic project has failed, it has fallen back on Hindu nationalism

Indian Congress party supporters celebrate in Ahmedabad are the ruling BJP lost power in its traditional strongholds. Sam Panthaky / AFP
Indian Congress party supporters celebrate in Ahmedabad are the ruling BJP lost power in its traditional strongholds. Sam Panthaky / AFP

Following heavy defeats for his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in key state elections on Tuesday, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi looks remarkably vulnerable ahead of general elections, due to be held by May.

Originally from a humble background, Mr Modi swept to power in 2014 on a tidal wave of economic hope. But his promises – to increase rural incomes, create 20 million jobs a year and provide housing for all – have come up short, fostering discontent in the very groups that elevated him to power.

Farmers are furious about dwindling incomes and propelled the BJP to humiliating defeats in the strongholds of Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan. The younger generation of Indians – 12 million of whom join the workforce every year – are disgruntled at the lack of jobs. Minorities are deeply concerned about the BJP’s penchant for religious polarisation. All were left aggrieved at the demonetisation policy in 2016, when 500 and 1,000 rupee notes were banned, in an effort to weed “black money” out of the economy.

And with failed economic promises denting its support, the BJP could become more strident in its deployment of Hindu nationalism as a vote winner.

During Mr Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Hindu mobs killed an estimated 1,000 Muslims in just three days. Mr Modi was accused of failing to stop the violence. With his rise, as well as the BJP’s electoral dominance, India’s political discourse has been driven by the nationalist agenda of those in the ruling party.

Mr Modi has not directly stoked the flames, although he has repeatedly failed to criticise those who do. In 2014, his close aide Amit Shah called on Hindus to get “revenge” on Muslims by electing the BJP. Mr Shah is now the party’s president. Calls to build a Hindu temple on the religious site of Ayodhya, where a 16th-century mosque was demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992 – sparking violence that killed 2,000 people – have also grown, with thousands marching in Delhi last Sunday.

If fears that May’s election could erupt into violence are realised, the BJP – and Mr Modi himself – must shoulder some of the blame.

Pre-election strategies have not been confined to religious polarisation. Mr Modi has also dragged major institutions, including the Reserve Bank of India, into a political maelstrom, massaging growth figures to bolster his record and compromising its prized independence. As voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, respected central bank governor Urjit Patel resigned, causing the rupee’s value to plummet.

Mr Modi remains personally popular, and whether the opposition Congress party – whose young leader Rahul Gandhi lacks experience – can mount a real challenge is unclear. But the 2019 general election will be wide open. In a country where people of different faiths have long lived peacefully side by side, Mr Modi should be seeking to unite, rather than divide.

Updated: December 12, 2018 06:50 PM