No voter love for Modi’s politics of hate

India’s six-week election campaign came to an end on Tuesday, with 640 million people voting in the world’s largest poll.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to cruise to victory and win a third term off the back of his widespread popularity. Instead, voters largely rejected his and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s election platform, with both falling back to earth with a resounding electoral thud.

The BJP is projected to win 240 seats in India’s Lok Sabha, falling short of the 272-seat mark needed to form government. The INDIA alliance, led by the National Congress Party, won 222 seats in a surprise showing, meaning the BJP needs to partner with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance to keep power.

This was not how it was meant to go. Pre-election exit polls projected the BJP and its allies would dominate to win between 353 and 401 seats while the opposition was expected to sputter to a meager 125 to 182 seats. Backed by the polls, there was a widely held view Modi would win and win big.

By any measure, the result is a personal blow for Modi. It is the first time in Modi’s political career that he has not won a majority victory, either as chief minister of Gujarat or as prime minister of India. It also marks a change in fortunes for Congress, which has been in steady decline while Modi has dominated Indian politics for a decade.

Modi will win a third term in office, only the second Indian leader to do so, but he is diminished.

The lackluster result can be linked to several issues ranging from unemployment, growing inequality and fears of constitutional change if the BJP dominated parliament for a third term. But it was Modi’s unabashed and public targeting of minority groups – particularly India’s 200 million Muslims – that likely put off voters in key states.

Modi began his re-election campaign focusing on voter concerns like welfare policies and infrastructure projects that would benefit millions of people. But as the weeks progressed, he resorted to anti-Muslim hate speech. At campaign rallies, the prime minister labeled Muslims as “infiltrators” and claimed they “had too many children”, a common Hindu nationalist trope.

Modi also accused Congress of favoring Muslims, claiming the opposition would redistribute the wealth of Hindus to their Muslim neighbors if they won power.

In January, Modi personally opened the controversial Ram temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, long seen as a battleground for Hindu nationalism. The temple – built over a 16th century mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992 – is seen by many as an attempt to redeem a past India dominated by Mughal and British rule. Modi’s involvement was a clear signal to voters he supports an India dominated by Hindus.

This has led to a spike in violence across India, with Muslims targeted. Human Rights Watch reported that Modi’s temple opening in Ayodhya led to sectarian clashes and incidents of vandalism, threats and violence against Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims.

There were also reports of Hindu nationalist mobs targeting and attacking Muslims across India during national Republic Day celebrations. This is reminiscent of Modi’s alleged role in stoking anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister, which killed at least 1,000 people. Modi has denied he played any role in the riots.

This should not be a surprise. Modi and the BJP are inextricably linked to Hindu nationalism and have used it for decades for political gain. While India has a long and proud history of secularism, Modi has pushed Hindu nationalism into the mainstream, with the aim of marginalizing India’s minority groups in preference for the Hindu majority.  

This appeared to work with voters in 2014 and 2019, with the BJP winning clear majorities in Hindu-majority seats like Uttar Pradesh.  But the results from this week suggest voters have had enough and see Modi’s strategy for what it is – a cynical attempt at division to win votes.

In Uttar Pradesh – a state governed by the BJP since 2017 – Modi and his party went backwards, with the BJP winning 33 seats, down from the 62 it won in 2019. Ironically, the party lost the seat of Faizabad, home to the aforementioned Ram temple in Ayodhya. Congress and its allies, on the other hand, won a combined 43 seats, up from 16 in 2019.

The BJP also saw losses in West Bengal, a state it had hoped to topple the INDIA alliance. The party saw significant gains in 2019, winning 19 of the state’s 42 seats. But this week, the BJP struggled to make ground, winning only 12. Like the total election result, this was counter to the exit polls, which predicted a majority for the BJP in West Bengal.

Political analysts put the result down to two factors. Young and non-BJP affiliated voters have not reaped the economic benefits of Modi’s utopian Hindu state and have voted for an opposition offering a new way forward.

Many Indians – particularly young people – have also been put off by Modi’s increasingly hateful rhetoric against Muslims. These minority communities have also unsurprisingly voted with their feet against the BJP throughout India. This is a lesson for Modi as he and his BJP assess and respond to the election’s aftermath.

There is a limit to how many votes politicians can win from hate and violence, particularly when most Indians are far more interested in improving their lives and feeding their families. While many governments lose popularity over time, this has undoubtedly played a role.

The solution is simple. Modi should seek to unite – not divide – the nation and ensure that all Indians benefit from a growing economy. India has always been at its best when it embraces its proud history of secularism. It’s time Modi and his BJP embraced that democratic reality.

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