Polling has begun in 49 constituencies in six states and two UTs in the fifth phase of Lok Sabha elections today. The fate of a number of politicians of national importance is at stake in this election: Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian opposition, who is contesting from the Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh; Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who is contesting from Lucknow; Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, who is contesting from the North Mumbai constituency; and former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Omar Abdullah.

Voting in the seven-phase elections kicked off on April 19 and the last phase will be held on June 1, concluding a mammoth exercise in which at least 969 million people are registered to vote. People from across 36 states and union territories are expected to elect 543 representatives to the Lok Sabha – the parliament’s lower house.

The various pools of the past week have further escalated the controversy between the two political main blocs: Prime Minister Modi has once again attacked the Congress party, claiming that its manifesto is Maoist in orientation, and going so far as to say that if returned to power, the Congress would send bulldozers to destroy the newly built Ram temple in Ayodhya. In response, Congress party leader Kharge insisted that the use of bulldozers was not part of their policy and that the BJP would no longer have a majority on 4 June, the day of the election results. Kharge also promised that if the I.n.d.i.a. coalition came to power, he would double the monthly food rations given free to needy families.

Among the key constituencies is Ladakh, the only constituency in the union territory of Ladakh carved out of Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019, has witnessed protests against the BJP for denying a ticket to its sitting MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal. The Congress party is hoping to capitalise on local grievances, the most important of which is the demand to bring the region under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The Congress has promised to include Ladakh in the schedule, which would mean protecting the region’s tribal status. Many locals fear that without this provision, their land, jobs and educational opportunities could be overrun by people from other parts of the country. The region is ecologically sensitive, and protesters have warned of the dangers of overtourism. Ladakh has also been on the frontline of a tense border standoff between India and China, with at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers killed in a deadly clash in May 2020. Many analysts say there is evidence that China has since nibbled away at previously Indian-held territory in Ladakh, a claim New Delhi denies.

Modi’s agenda against ‘invaders’

Modi has a religious-nationalist agenda. Hindutva, his ideology, is the idea of India as the home of the Hindus. This is a break with the Indian ideal of being a secular country with different and equal religions. Hindutva also means marginalising the country’s largest minority, the Muslims. For weeks now, Modi’s party, the BJP, has been stepping up its rhetoric against Muslims. A cartoon published by the party, for example, showed opposition leader Rahul Gandhi placing a giant egg labelled ‘Muslims’ in a nest containing other eggs labelled with the names of minorities such as indigenous tribes and backward castes. In the cartoon, Gandhi feeds the bird the ‘Muslim’ egg until it gets too big and pushes the other minorities out of the nest. So the message behind the cartoon is that the opposition wants to benefit Muslims.

Modi himself has not backed down in his campaign speeches. In April he said, somewhat cryptically, that the opposition wanted to give money to those ‘who have the most children’ and asked the crowd: ‘Should your hard-earned money be given to the invaders? Modi obviously meant Muslims. It is part of the Hindutva narrative that Muslims have invaded the Indian subcontinent and do not belong there. BJP leaders keep repeating that Muslims are having more children than Hindus and that therefore they may soon be a majority rather than a minority.

In early May, a demographic study of religious minorities in 167 countries, including India, was published by the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. According to the study, the proportion of Hindus in India’s population has fallen by almost 8 per cent since 1950, while the proportion of Muslims has risen by 43 per cent.
The Population Foundation of India, an independent demographic think-tank, criticised the study for creating confusion with its figures: The percentage of Muslims in the total population was 9.84% in 1950 and 14.09% in the latest survey: an increase of 4.25 percentage points. However, the authors of the study, who are close to the government, calculated the increase from 9.82% to 14.09% as an increase of 43% in order to make the figures appear more alarming.

Although Muslims in India have a higher fertility rate, it has converged with that of Hindus in recent years: Hindus have an average of 1.94 children, Muslims 2.36 – and the trend is down for both. But the main Indian news headlines were already very much in line with Modi and the BJP: Hindus are threatened by an exploding Muslim minority that may soon become a majority.

It is hard to see how re-election can be taken away from Modi and his party – the party is too popular in the north of India. Nevertheless, he has decided to campaign once again on religion and resentment. After ten years in power, Modi would have enough problems to run a successful campaign. Although the country has become more authoritarian, Modi has also improved infrastructure, the economy is growing and the many subsidies and election gifts are helping the poorer sections of the population. Western partners had hoped that Modi would score points in the election campaign with his economic and foreign policy achievements. They seek India’s closeness as an economic and geostrategic partner and would like to see Modi involved. As the election campaign shows, these hopes have been dashed for the time being.

Cover image by Srinivasa-Krishnan on Shutterstock