Elections 2019: An Unprecedented Poll Campaign of Invoking Fear and Hostility

Whatever pretension the BJP might have had in the past of representing all citizens across caste and religious lines has dissipated into thin air.

The ongoing general election campaign is like none other India has witnessed since independence. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s repeated invocation of hate against ‘others’, particularly Muslims, is indeed stunning in a democracy whose constitution remains committed to secularism.

The BJP leadership is, without exception, stoking the flames of a burning fire. From the top of the chain of command – the prime minister and the BJP president – to the home and finance ministers, the entire party leadership is orchestrating a campaign that hinges on suspicion and hatred of a citizenry that includes minorities, dissidents, activists and opposition parties. Nobody other than the BJP leadership and its faithful has been spared the brunt of virulence in this unprecedented electoral campaign.

In villages as in small towns and cities, the ruling party is openly seeking a second mandate in the name of the Hindu majority community to govern a country that is as diverse as India. Whatever basic pretension or mealy-mouthed commitment the BJP might have made in the past to represent all of India’s citizens, regardless of caste and religion, has dissipated into thin air. This is a campaign of fear and hostility.

If the BJP president, at a rally in north Bengal, described illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites,” the prime minister, at a rally in Wardha, said Hindus would teach the Congress a lesson for coining the term “Hindu terror”.

At a rally in Gujarat, the home minister said that the BJP-led government will tighten the sedition law to an extent that will “send shivers down the spine”.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley, on his part, observed that the BJP poll manifesto was prepared with a strong nationalist vision, and not inspired by a “tukde tukde mindset”.

Union minister Maneka Gandhi told a gathering in UP’s Sultanpur last Thursday that she would not be inclined to help Muslims if they do not vote for her in this election: “Vote for me or don’t come to me for any work after elections.

The use of such staggering vocabulary suggesting punitive violence is important to note. Dehumanising a fantasised enemy is perhaps one of the oldest stock-in-trade strategies used by majoritarian political forces the world over. The majority ethnic Hutus in Rwanda, who carried out the mass slaughter of Tutsis in 1994, described the members of the minority group as “cockroaches”. Nazis frequently compared Jewish people to insects. Ring a bell?

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For the BJP, the process of abusing its opposition began much ahead of the 2019 general election. At a rally in Mumbai last April, ridiculing the opposition parties’ move to form a grand anti-BJP alliance, Amit Shah said the BJP was like a “flood”: “And when flood comes, all cats, dogs, snakes and mongooses take refuge under the banyan tree and unite.” His recent labelling of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” is part of that same political culture.

Given the rise in violence against Muslims that we have witnessed over the last five years, the BJP knows how easy it would be to rile up its majoritarian support base; how easy it would be to paint illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in broad strokes; to make them stand in for the Muslim community as a whole.

BJP president Amit Shah during a road show. Credit: PTI

But that’s not all. The BJP’s campaign, as it unravels, is both politically dangerous and socially regressive. Consider, for instance, Modi’s recent speech at a rally in Kozhikode in Kerala. “Certain forces were trying to destroy our cultural traditions in the name of the Supreme Court order. We cannot allow any attack on our traditions and faith,” Modi told the crowd. Alluding to the conflict over women of menstruating age entering Sabarimala temple, Modi privileged a regressive, patriarchal cultural norm over the Supreme Court’s judgment.

Last September, the apex court scrapped an archaic custom disallowing women of menstruating age from entering Sabarimala. Throwing open the doors of the temple to women of all ages, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said: “Prejudice against women based on notions of impurity and pollution associated with menstruation is a symbol of exclusion. The social exclusion of women based on menstrual status is a form of untouchability which is anathema to the Constitutional values.”

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Defying the judgment, the BJP’s Kerala unit, encouraged by the party’s central leadership, has been up in arms against the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, which has gone all out in implementing the court order. In his Kozhikode speech, the prime minister made it clear where he and his party stand on gender equity and gender justice.

Regrettably, as we have seen over the last five years, civil society resistance to the verbal and physical abuse of Muslims, Dalits and dissidents, has – to put it mildly – been disappointing. The climate of fear has worked to the advantage of the  BJP. Since the party came to power, we have watched images of mob lynchings play out across the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland, the BJP’s ideological cradle. Such incidents continue even today as the BJP scales up its aggressive campaign, rallying Hindus and whetting an appetite for revenge against an imaginary enemy.

In the very latest, less than a week after an elderly Muslim man was abused by a mob in Assam last week, Prakash Lakra, a member of the tribal community in Jharkhand’s Jhumro village was lynched to death by a group of people.

Faced by this situation, one has to wonder whether there is more than a grain of truth to the hyperbolic claim that these elections will decide whether this country survives in recognisable form over the five years to come.