Holding on to hope for India as extremist elected

Minorities, dissidents and the poor in India are at risk as extreme-right politician Narendra Modi takes control as prime minister. He represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), part of the Hindutva movement, which misuses religion in the quest for power.

Results indicate a landslide victory for the BJP, with over half the parliamentary seats, though only a third of the total vote. This is largely due to widespread anger at the complacency and corruption of the ruling Congress Party, and its lacklustre election campaign compared with the BJP’s slick and expensive public relations machine and the disciplined work of Hindutva activists nationally.

The result will be a relief for Gujarat chief minister Modi. He was widely condemned for his role in the killing of an estimated 1,500-2,000 Muslims in 2002. A supreme court-appointed legal expert has advised that there is enough evidence to put him on trial, an investigative team disagrees and the matter is being argued out in the courts.

Police officers have also claimed that he, along with his right-hand man Amit Shah, was involved in arranging extra-judicial killings. At least for the time being, he is safe from prosecution for these and other alleged offences.

A former organiser for the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in the run-up to the election he played down his extremist background, focusing instead on his supposed achievements in the field of economic development.

It has been pointed out that these have been exaggerated. While the richest have prospered, the poor have not done as well. However sections of the media, and influential BJP sympathisers in India and overseas, have been unwilling to question its claims too closely.

Towards the end of the election campaign, his hostility to minorities and contempt for democracy were more openly displayed. When over forty Muslims were murdered during communal violence in Assam, he tried to ratchet up tension there by verbally attacking so-called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Then in Faizabad he declared “This is the land of Lord Ram,” standing in front of a picture of the god, a few kilometres from where fanatics tore down a mosque in 1992 and pledged to build a temple to Ram in its place.

This appeared to be an act of blatant defiance of election law. And when the election commission ruled out a Modi rally in a particular spot in Varanasi for security reasons, it was threatened by the BJP. Public officials who seek to protect the integrity of India’s democratic institutions may have a high price to pay.

It remains to be seen whether Modi will try to rein in his most violent associates, avoid further anti-minority rhetoric and keep his own authoritarian tendencies in check, at least for his first few months in office. If so, he will come under pressure from fellow-activists in Hindutva who are jubilant that their cause has triumphed.

India’s role as a regional power, and possession of nuclear weapons, mean that the stakes are even higher.

Yet there are many who are committed to defending the ideals of pluralism and justice, even if this puts them at risk. And, as those who voted for Modi in the hope of rapid economic and social transformation find that these promises are not fulfilled, his support is likely to crumble. Falsity and hatred will not ultimately triumph.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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