Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Polls Will Test Modi's Politics of Muslim Exclusion

Aspiration of an inclusive India has been under threat in the Modi regime. If the BJP-led alliance gets 400 seats and the BJP betters its current tally of 303, there will be immense internal pressure to proceed towards an exclusive Hindu nation, with changes to the Constitution.
Muslim voters in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh queue up to vote.
Muslim voters in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh queue up to vote. Bharat Bhushan, 360info

Inclusion and exclusion of social groups is part of the art of politics. No political party can represent all citizens equally, as all politics is based on the distinction between "us" and "them". 

In populist politics, this boils down to an antagonism between "the good people" and "the corrupt elite". In authoritarian populism, this distinction is weaponised, with the state, executive leadership and party political machinery used to sharpen antagonisms between them.

Inclusion and exclusion are central to the on-going Indian elections. This is also the key to understanding why authoritarian politics has considerable and seemingly paradoxical popular support in Indian democracy.  

In India, during an election campaign in which incumbent Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a third term, the ‘pure people’ are Hindus as defined by the ruling dispensation. 

The ‘enemies’ are an allegedly corrupt elite, Hindus who do not conform to the definition of "Sanatan Dharma" (a puritanical version that defends the caste system and equates Hinduism with vegetarianism), left-wing critics, and, most of all, Muslims, whose visible exclusion from public life is the main engine driving the  Bharatiya Janata Party’s’s ascendance to power. 

Modi’s BJP and its affiliated organisations have spent considerable energy excluding Muslims from public life through denial of justice, calls for economic boycotts and fear-mongering that Hindu assets would be seized and redistributed among Muslims.

The BJP has fielded no Muslim candidate in state and national elections over ten years. It is frequently charged with intimidating Muslim voters, with many complaints their names have been  deleted from electoral rolls in BJP-ruled states. The use of the term "vote jihad" by Modi himself delegitimises their electoral participation.

Yet, the BJP has also had to make overtures to include certain Muslims in its category of "the people". The criminalisation of "triple-talaq" was aimed to woo Muslim women voters and appeals to "Pasmanda" (Dalits and backward caste) Muslims were meant to wean them away from the larger community.

The trick is to convince Muslims that they will be included in Modi’s dispensation, while at the same time assure his Hindu base that they will be excluded. The ideology of exclusion seeks balance with the realpolitik of inclusion as the elections are unfolding in ways that have made the BJP anxious. 

It was expected to be a one-horse race. However, as the long drawn out elections progressed, they have become harder to predict.

Modi needed to best the BJP’s 2019 tally of 303 seats out of 543 in Parliament – hence the slogan “Abki Baar, 400 paar” (this time, more than 400 seats”). 

He has claimed that he needed that number to make more profound changes to India than he has been able to since 2014. He thus announced enigmatically, “The past ten years have been a trailer” and the main film was yet to come. 

Prominent members of his party are not coy about what this means. They have given clear calls for the "liberation" of more mosques and their conversion into temples, the enforcement of exclusionary citizenship laws discriminating against Muslims, declaring India as a Hindu nation by changing the Constitution.

This has also led to apprehensions that the BJP will undo affirmative action quotas ("reservations"), although the party has denied any such intent. 

In contrast, the Congress-led opposition INDIA alliance has framed the question of inclusion in a different way. 

They have dissected Modi’s vacuous slogan, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas” (everyone’s participation, everyone’s development, everyone’s trust”) by showing that large swathes of the population have been excluded from the India’s high growth. 

They have argued that such exclusion would expand to cancelling job reservations if an emboldened BJP returned to power. That is the central logic of the Opposition insisting on a national caste census.

Perceiving that the BJP’s and Modi’s Muslim-bashing has set a rhetorical trap for them, the opposition alliance has avoided openly advocating a fuller inclusion of Muslims.

They have also not risen to the bait, dangled by the BJP’s star campaigners, stating that the Congress in power would destroy the Ram Temple and reconstruct the Babri Mosque.

They are playing it safe, thus betraying their acceptance of the political terrain set by the BJP on the question of inclusion of Muslims on an equal footing. In fact, while the Congress has raised the slogan of “jitni aabadi utna haq” (rights to resources in proportion to share of population), they have not fielded Muslims in the election in proportion to their share in the population.

What happens to the prospect of an inclusive India hinges on the outcomes of these elections. 

If the BJP-led alliance gets 400 seats and the BJP betters its current tally of 303, there will be immense internal pressure to proceed towards an exclusive Hindu nation, with changes to the Constitution. 

If the BJP’s alliance wins but the BJP itself falls short of a simple majority on its own, the party will not have the numbers to make constitutional change. It will then have to compromise with some allied parties that have Muslim support, tempering its majoritarian agenda. 

To be sure, while the Indian Constitution has spoken of an inclusive polity of equal citizens regardless of religion, caste, or gender, this has been an aspiration rather than a reality.

In fact, the very pretence of an inclusive India has been directly attacked by the BJP over the past 10 years. All this has shown the hollowness of the claims of Indian secularism and political equality. The reality is that of an ethnocracy, with a de facto gradation, and indeed de-gradation, of citizenship and cultural belonging.

There is also no readymade "inclusive India" to which one can just ‘return’. With a history of betrayal and erosion of Constitutional guarantees of an inclusive polity, much work needs to be done to construct a new and different vision of an inclusive India.

- Subir Sinha is Associate Professor and Director of SOAS South Asia Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies University, London, UK.

(Article sourced from 360info)

Muslim voters in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh queue up to vote.
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