By John Dayal
New Delhi, May 24, 2019: In actual terms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns to Parliament in May 2019 with almost exactly the same number of seats for his National Democratic Alliance as he and his lieutenant from Gujarat, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah, had done as first timers in 2014.
The reason for the hoopla on television and the streets is that the BJP by itself has broken the 300 mark in the 542 member Lok Sabha, and the fact that it is almost five decades after the late Indira Gandhi that any sitting prime minister has come back with an absolute majority after a first five-year term not marked by any wars won – against poverty or external enemies.
Modi has also made deep inroads in Bengal, Telangana, and Karnataka. Tamil Nadu’s DMK leader M K Stalin, the Congress in Kerala, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and YSR Congress leader Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Captain Amrendra Singh’s leadership of the Congress in Punjab alone could withstand the BJP whirlwind.
The Congress did not get a single seat in 20 states, and party president Rahul Gandhi lost his own in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. His mother Sonia Gandhi was the solitary Congress winner from India’s largest state. The party increased its score somewhat, reaching 52 seats, 8 more than in the last Lok Sabha. Gandhi had shunned coalitions, and that alone may help him rebuild the party from its ruins of the last two general elections.
Coalitions failed miserably this time, especially in Uttar Pradesh where the Bahujan Semaj Party of Dalit leader Mayawati and the Samajwadi party of Backward classes leader Akhilesh Yadav were at one time projected to stop the BJP in its tracks. They could barely make a dent. Modi also presides over a coalition, but in his NDA, every partner is at his mercy.
Patently, Modi rode on his personal chemistry as a non-nonsense leader with first time voters and possibly those in towns and villagers who had benefited from gas stoves, free toilets and direct financial transfers. These may but be icing on the cake.
But the victory was built on a set of very disturbing arguments that find resonance with the global shift to extreme right-wing leaders, but in a complex demography of India, should call for some introspection.
At the core remains religious nationalism. Modi conflates it with a conjectured golden age of India and Hinduism and promises to restore India to that past as world Guru. That would be good if he did not repeatedly present himself as the liberator of the Hindus from 1200 years of Islamic and Christian slavery. That makes it easy to then identify in unspoken imagery today’s Muslim population, Pakistan, and contemporary terrorism with its complex roots as one connected threat.
The dog-whistle of Islamophobia unfortunately is given a keen year by the people looking for any reason to explain the slowdown in economic growth, the agricultural crisis and the lack of a real social security. Muslim infiltration in Bengal and Assam, colorfully described by Shah as “termites,” Modi to imply all opposition parties were abetting terrorists, if not actually collaborating Islamabad.
Before the elections, as in 2014, there was no attempt to reassure religious and ethnic minorities. The party and leaders made it clear that they did not need Muslims to win elections. The Congress was accused of a policy of “appeasement” of Muslims. No Muslim candidate was put.
That goes equally true for the Christian community. The Christians come from allied parties in the northeast for which the BJP diluted its ban on cow slaughter and the transport of cattle and beef. Modi waited till almost the end of his first term before appointing former officer K J Alphonse as a junior minister. Alphonse got a drubbing in Kerala. The state’s utter rejection of the BJP is not likely to endear Christians to Modi. The BJP and the RSS anyway have already spoken of their desire to do something to further tighten the inflow of money to NGOs, and to the Church which is charged with using foreign funds to lure Hindu Tribals to Christianity.
But in the interest of social peace, Mr. Modi will have to address the fears of the religious minorities. All those lynching’s by Gau Rakshaks and the almost daily attack on some house church or pastor cannot be wished away. The economic situation of Muslims as also Dalit, Tribal and agriculture labour in the Christian community also need to be addressed. One hopes that there will be adequate funds available as direct transfer, scholarships and training grants.
I have less hope of political empowerment. There is no possibility of Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians. The matter is in the Supreme Court, but the state has to be willing, and that is not to be. Religious minorities can just bide their time, hoping for politics to change.
(John Dayal is a senior journalist and human rights activist.)