Articles Asia Politics & Governance

Hindu Identity Politics: The BJP’s Winning Formula in State Polls

Image Credit: The Washington Post
Hindu Identity Politics: The BJP's Winning Formula in State Polls

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ruling at a time when India is the fifth largest economy in the world and rather dear to the West, especially the United States, which perceives India as a counterweight to China. More importantly, it enjoys considerable support from the Hindu populace. Mindful of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi capitalises on openly showing belligerence toward Pakistan, its neighbour. BJP’s identity politics, based on anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim stances, primarily focuses on wooing Hindu voters, who make up 79.80 % of the population. Every time elections approach, like recent assembly elections in five states, BJP’s politicians demonise Muslims, who account for 14.2% of the population, and use anti-Pakistan rhetoric, thus benefitting electorally.

The latest state assembly elections were held in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Mizoram. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP secured 54 of 90 assembly constituencies while the ruling Congress took the lead on 35 seats. The BJP bagged 115 out of 199 seats in Rajhastan, another Congress-ruled state. The Hindu-Nationalist party remained in government in Madhya Pradesh for a record fifth term by getting 163 of 230 seats. The Congress emerged victorious in the southern state of Telangana, previously governed by the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) party. The Congress managed to get 64 seats out of 119 seats, while the BRS got 39. The BJP was only able to win eight seats in the state.  The people of Mizoram gave a chance to a new party, the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM), leading to its victory on 27 out of 40 state assembly seats.

These state elections are considered crucial in deciding the fate of political parties in the upcoming 2024 general elections. These states collectively send 83 members to 543 members of Lok Sabha – the lower house – the equivalent of Pakistan’s National Assembly. 65 of these 83 seats are in the Hindi heartland, consisting of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, where the BJP will form state governments. Therefore, the BJP victory indicates that it remains a favourite party to win the upcoming general elections. Local pollsters have predicted time and again that the BJP would most likely win a third term in central government in 2024.

Thus, the party’s approach not only impacts India’s internal dynamics but also has far-reaching implications for regional peace and stability.

The BJP’s growing popularity among the masses has unsettled the opposition parties, especially the Congress, which has ruled for the longest time in the country’s 76 years of history. This fact has brought together almost all political parties under the umbrella of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), formed in July. The Congress-led INDIA comprised over two dozen political parties. The alliance is considered to be weak for at least three reasons. First, it has not presented an alternative vision to the BJP so far. Second, it has not agreed on a leader to compete with Narendra Modi. Third, the alliance involves bitter rivals such as the Congress and Aam Admi Party (AAP), which poses a challenge, especially disagreements over seat sharing, to form a united front against the BJP.

The recent elections took place at a time when India was dealing with a number of issues, including attacks and hate speech against Muslims and other minorities by Hindu nationalists. It is argued that one of the significant factors contributing to the BJP’s victory in state elections is its anti-Muslim stance to gain Hindu support. PM Modi portrays himself as a “Hindu sriday samrat”, the ruler of Hindu hearts. A recent report has found that 70% of hate speech incidents occurred in states where elections are scheduled in 2023 and 2024. Maharashtra tops the list with 29% of events. Most of the hate speech incidents involve “conspiracy theories and calls for violence and socio-economic boycott against Muslims”. Unsurprisingly, PM Modi’s BJP-governed states reported 80% of the hate speech incidents. Even in the Indian parliament, Islamophobic remarks were hurled. BJP Member of Parliament (MP) Ramesh Bidhuri called an Indian Muslim MP of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Kunwar Danish Ali, a “pimp”, a “terrorist”, and “circumcised”, among other derogatory remarks. Interestingly, BJP politicians who indulge in hate speech get promotions within the party ranks. For example, MP Bidhuri was later appointed head of the Rajasthan Tonk district ahead of the assembly elections.

The party’s assertive stance on Hindu nationalism has raised concerns among minority Muslims, who fear marginalisation and exclusion in their own country. This sentiment of unease and apprehension has been exacerbated by instances of communal violence and divisive rhetoric. Since the BJP came into power in 2014, Muslims have been facing persecution in various ways. In 2019, the BJP government amended the Citizenship Act, which allowed illegal migrants, excluding Muslims, to get Indian citizenship. The United Nations human rights office labelled the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) as “fundamentally discriminatory” for excluding Muslim migrants. Moreover, during the BJP’s tenure in Karnataka, Muslim-owned properties were demolished in the name of clearing out unauthorised construction, and the wearing of the hijab in schools was outlawed.

Besides, the Hindu nationalist BJP Party, emboldened by its political dominance, is perceived as a threat not only to the minority Muslim community but also, in a way, to Pakistan. The party’s aggressive foreign policy and territorial disputes have strained relations with its nuclear-armed neighbour, raising tensions in an already volatile region. The Balakot surgical strike in 2019, the withdrawal of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status, and the false flag Pulwama attack were all aimed at getting maximum Hindu votes, putting the regional peace at stakes.

Thus, the party’s approach not only impacts India’s internal dynamics but also has far-reaching implications for regional peace and stability. BJP’s victory in three out of five states in assembly elections in early December makes Modi’s BJP more likely to win a third term in central government in 2024 elections. The right-wing party win, emboldened by the Hindu support base, means any possibility of reasonable talks between India and Pakistan remains a distant dream and increased persecution of Muslims at home.

Usman Ali

Usman Ali is a graduate of International Relations from the National University of Modern Languages, NUML, Islamabad. His research interests include the affairs of the South Asian countries. He currently serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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