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A Setback for the “Cult of Modi”? Indian Opposition Faring Surprisingly Well in Early Election Count

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Image Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

Preliminary results from the world’s largest election suggest Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party will have a reduced majority in Parliament, with the opposition alliance known by the acronym INDIA doing better than expected. During India’s six-week election, voters and poll workers endured deadly heat waves, and vocal critic Arvind Kejriwal was sent to prison on corruption charges. This comes as Modi’s opponents have accused the prime minister of using hate speech after he described Muslims in India as “infiltrators.” Meanwhile, journalists who are critical of Modi have been expelled, investigated and raided by his government. The “massive reduction” in power, despite holding “one of the most undemocratic elections,” demonstrates “the anti-Muslim rhetoric has not quite worked for Modi,” says Indian journalist Rana Ayyub in New Dehli. “This election result, it might still give Modi a third term, but it has punctured the hubris around Modi.”

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StoryMay 09, 2024Indian PM Narendra Modi Runs on “Hatred and Demonization” of Muslims in World’s Largest Election
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in India, where preliminary results from the world’s largest election suggest Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party will have a reduced majority in Parliament. Meanwhile, the opposition alliance known by the acronym I-N-D-I-A, INDIA, and led by Rahul Gandhi’s centrist Congress Party, is doing better than expected. India’s seven-phase election began April 19th, ended Saturday. If Modi wins as expected, he would be just the second Indian leader to serve a third term, after India’s first prime minister, Nehru.

Many voters faced searingly hot temperatures as they went to the polls, some record-breaking temperatures. Others, like vocal Modi critic Arvind Kejriwal, surrendered to prison after voting. He’s a former senior tax official who founded an anti-corruption party and was arrested on corruption charges, which he denies.

ARVIND KEJRIWAL: [translated] I want to say to the people of Delhi that I am going to jail again, not because I have done a scam, but because I have raised my voice against dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in North Kashmir, a candidate known as Engineer Rashid, who’s jailed on militancy charges, has won his race against a candidate who has already conceded. Opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accused him of using hate speech after he described Muslims in India as “infiltrators.” This is Modi addressing an election rally in April.

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: [translated] Do you think your hard-earned money should be given to infiltrators? Would you accept this? This is what the Congress’s manifesto is saying.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as journalists who are critical of Prime Minister Modi have been expelled, investigated and raided by his government.

For more, we go to New Delhi, India. We’re joined by Rana Ayyub, Indian journalist and global opinions writer for The Washington Post, where her latest article is headlined “Journalism in India is under assault.” She’s the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.

We thank you so much for joining us, Rana. If you can start off by talking about the significance of the election results? What is so surprising today?

RANA AYYUB: Hello, Amy. Good to be back on the show.

You know, everybody in this country and exit polls in this country were predicting a massive third term for Prime Minister Modi. What is significant is that this entire election, one, was fought around the cult of Modi, but it is fought around the vilification of Muslims. In every election speech and in every rally that Modi took, he was vilifying Muslims. He was calling them infiltrators, outsiders, so on, so forth.

More than anything else, it was probably also one of the most undemocratic elections, with opposition leaders being jailed before the elections, income tax and Enforcement Directorate raids on the Indian opposition, their bank accounts frozen.

In that context, when the numbers of the ruling party is reduced to this number, to what we are seeing today, as it’s quite a massive reduction, it really impacts the cult and the popularity of Modi, because the entire election campaign was fought around Modi’s guarantee, Modi’s promise. Across billboards in India, you had Modi literally blessing Indians, right? That’s what he was doing.

So, I think this election result, and specifically three months after the Ram temple inauguration, which was built on a demolished mosque in Ayodhya — now, the significant part of this is that 80% of the constituency of Faizabad, where the Ram temple stands, is Hindus, and today the BJP lost in that constituency, which means you cannot drum up the anti-Muslim, Hindu majoritarian sentiment to the extent, because people in India wanted jobs. People in India, there’s rural distress. And I think that has really spoken up this time around. The people of India have spoken up against what they have been facing, I think. The anti-Muslim rhetoric has not quite worked for Modi this time around in a third term. And if that had happened, then it would have been really dangerous for India’s democracy and India’s secular character.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rana, I wanted to ask you — India has long had a vibrant leftist and communist movement. How did those left parties, how have they been doing in this election, from what you can tell?

RANA AYYUB: Well, you know, at this point of time, we have something called INDIA alliance, which also includes, you know, left parties and the left in Kerala and other bastions. I think this time around, the INDIA alliance, which includes the Indian National Congress and other regional parties, which stitched together an alliance based on caste, class, language, religion — I think that played a fundamental role, and I think a big credit needs to be given to the regional parties of India, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Now, the BJP derives its biggest support system from Uttar Pradesh in north India, where we have also seen all sorts of hate crimes, bulldozing of Muslim households. In a state like that, in a province like that, the BJP has been reduced to half. So I think local actors and regional parties who have worked really hard in this election trying to move the conversation from the anti-Muslim rhetoric, the fundamentalism, back to unemployment, back to rural distress, I think that has played a significant role in this election.

And the hubris of Modi, I mean, this entire campaign — OK, just before the election result, Modi was meditating in Kanniyakumari, imitating Swami Vivekananda, and, you know, all the cameras surrounding him, a godlike figure. He also said in an interview that he believes that he was not biological born, but divine born. So, this election result, it might still give Modi a third term, but it has punctured the hubris around Modi, where he has gone around telling that he’s the most popular leader in the world, he stopped the war in the world, he stopped the Ukraine war. So, that hubris has been punctured, and I think the regional parties have a big role to play, along with the Indian National Congress.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, you mentioned the anti-Muslim campaigning. The Citizenship Amendment Act, the new citizenship law that recently passed in India, that Modi has vowed now to implement, could you talk about that and this whole, effectively, creating religious criteria for citizenship?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Muslims in India have been living in fear, I mean, with the results. There has been a great deal of cynicism, because Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, it allows — I mean, Muslims will have to prove their citizenship. And persecuted minorities, except Muslims, will be given citizenship in India. And it was notified just two months before the elections. This, along with what the government is trying to introduce, the Uniform Civil Code, so that the Muslim code will be taken away, and many such majoritarian politics.

But what is interesting with this election result is that I was sitting this morning with Muslims who have been arrested in the past. I was watching the election results with them. And these are people who have been quite cynical. When asked them what did this mean to them, and they said that this might not immediately stop the persecution of Muslims, but it might give them the breathing space. It might give them the space to resist, at a time when some of India’s best-known student activists and Muslim activists are behind bars. So, I think it’s a bit of a shot in the arm. It might be too early yet, not knowing how one can predict Modi’s majoritarian politics. But it has certainly given a shot in the arm to the ones who wanted to resist and to hope for a better India, for a democratic India, because the biggest fear for all of us was it was the democracy of the country which was at stake, the democratic norms which were at stake in this election, you know, with the world’s largest democracy. Voter suppression — Muslim voters were not allowed to vote in many areas, in many constituencies in India. So, with all this kept in mind, I feel that a reduced majority for Modi could be a sigh of relief for Muslims in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Comedian John Oliver addressed Prime Minister Modi in a new episode of his show, [Last] Week Tonight, which he said he doubted would be allowed to air in India. And in fact, it has not. And it’s not available on YouTube there, either. This is a clip.

JOHN OLIVER: You would think that all of this would be fertile ground for Modi’s critics to exploit, but it’s actually hard to do that in India. For one thing, it’s difficult to confront him to his face, because he hasn’t held a single press conference in India in the last 10 years. And the interviews that he’s granted have been the exact opposite of hard-hitting.

INTERVIEWER 1: [translated] Do you carry a purse on you, a wallet to hold your cash?

INTERVIEWER 2: [translated] Do you have a best friend, best friend forever, with whom you share matters of the heart?

INTERVIEWER 3: [translated] At this age, how do you bring so much energy?

INTERVIEWER 4: [translated] Does our prime minister eat mangoes? Does he cut it first or eat it with the stone still in?

JOHN OLIVER: OK, most of those questions are embarrassing softballs, but “How do you eat a mango?” is a valid thing to ask.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Oliver with Last Week Tonight. Also, the highly acclaimed award-winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy has said if BJP wins this election, India will not remain a democracy. This is Arundhati Roy when she accepted the 2023 European Essay Award in September.

ARUNDHATI ROY: It is no longer just our leaders we must fear, but a whole section of the population. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt would have called it, the normalization of evil, is now manifest in our streets, in our classrooms, in our very many public spaces. The mainstream press, the hundreds of 24-hour news channels, have been harnessed to the cause of fascist majoritarianism. India’s Constitution has effectively been set aside. The Indian Penal Code is being rewritten. If the current regime wins a majority in 2024, it is very likely we will see a new constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the great writer Arundhati Roy. Rana Ayyub, if you can respond? And also, for a global audience — you are the author of Gujarat Files — who don’t understand who Narendra Modi is, going back to the Gujarat massacre, when he was in charge of Gujarat, and then denied entry into the United States for years for responsibility for that massacre, if you can explain who he is, the past and, well, future prime minister of India?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Amy, he is — I’ll take you back to an election — to a debate, a debate on a channel called NDTV when the 9/11 terror attack took place, and Narendra Modi was on that debate. He was, back then, just a BJP leader. And when he was asked to comment on the issue, he said, “Well, the root cause of it was Islam.” And he cherry-picked quotes of Islam — from Islam, from the Qur’an.

Back in 2002, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat — I have written a book on the Gujarat carnage of Muslims and the extrajudicial murder of Muslims, where fake encounters were done of Muslims where they were alleged to be terrorists and they were shot dead to create this image of Modi, the Hindu leader, under attack from Islamists. His entire career has centered around the Muslim as the other, as the enemy. When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, a thousand Muslims were massacred under his watch. And soon after he became the chief minister of Gujarat, and around the same time, he had referred to the Muslims in the relief camps, where Muslims were being kept, the ones who were affected by the Gujarat carnage, as “child-producing factories.” His entire career has centered around vilification of Muslims.

And then, of course, the series of fake encounters in which his deputy, Amit Shah, the second most important man in the country, the home minister of India, was arrested in 2010 for the extrajudicial murder of a man called Sohrabuddin, and Tulsi Prajapati, and Sohrabuddin’s wife, Kauser Bi. He was later, of course, acquitted in the case.

And so, this is the history. And he was stopped by the United States from entering the country for his role in human rights excesses. This is the history of Narendra Modi. He played a big part in canvassing for a Ram temple when the Babri Masjid was demolished, as a Hindu nationalist. He derives his inspiration from the RSS. It’s a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization, and he claims allegiance to that.

Over a period of years, I mean, I have seen his journey, when I went to Gujarat as a relief worker during the Gujarat riots, to a journalist who was reporting the Gujarat elections, and then the prime-ministerial elections here. One thing that has remained consistent about Modi and his politics is Hindu majoritarianism, Hindu nationalism and the vilification of Muslims.

I mean, I think one of the most significant part of this election was that even during the Gujarat riots, he would refer to Muslims — he would allude to, or he would do dog whistles. There would be dog whistles against Muslims, but never a direct reference to Muslims. In this particular election, the speeches that he has given, he has called Muslims directly as infiltrators. He has said, “If the opposition comes to power, you will have more Muslims on the cricket team. If the opposition comes to power, there will be more Muslims here.” There is an entire ad created by— an advertisement created by the BJP in which the Muslim is caricatured as somebody who’s destroyed Indian civilization.

So, that is the history of Modi, political history of Modi, which is his career has survived on the vilification of Muslims throughout. And it is very important for this election result, although we do know that Modi is going to get a third term. But it was very important that a reduced majority, a mandate was given, so that this hatred, in a way, could be stopped, could be halted for a bit. We don’t know what Modi is up to. We don’t know what he can do to an elections. But this Hindu nationalistic agenda, this idea of a Hindu India that he has been selling to the average Indian, I think that did not work really well for him this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Rana Ayyub, we want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this. Indian journalist, global opinions writer for The Washington Post, author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, speaking to us from New Delhi, India.

Next up, we look at the Mexican election, where the first woman has been elected president. But first to El Salvador, to the weakened inauguration of Nayib Bukele, who’s described himself as “the world’s coolest dictator.” Among those there from the United States for the ceremony, Alejandro Mayorkas, Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. Back in 20 seconds.

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