Indian election a battle for hearts and minds

The world's biggest democracy is about to decide whether it should become a Hindu hegemony
Indian election a battle for hearts and minds

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur (center) is welcomed during a rally for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the parliamentary election in Bhopal on April 23. Some 900 million voters in 29 states are eligible to take part in the world's biggest election. (AFP photo)

The ongoing general election in India will decide who will rule its 1.2 billion people for the next five years. But the run-up to the polls not only pitted political parties against each other but also divided Indian intelligentsia, sadly centered on a bigoted religious ideology.

For the first time since the British left India in 1947, paving the way for it to become the largest democracy in the world, the country’s film actors, painters, historians, novelists and scientists stand divided over the ideology of making India a Hindu theocratic nation. And the division has become palpable as the election has got underway.

The election, conducted in seven phases because of its enormity involving 900 million voters, began on April 11 and will run through May 19. The declaration of results on May 23 will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will continue for another term of five years.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoy unwavering support from Hindu groups that want to make India a Hindu nation. BJP leaders make no qualms about wanting to assert Hindu hegemony over people of other religions.

On April 8, some 200 scientists from India’s premier institutions, whose research is directly dependent on government grants, appealed to people not to go adrift while voting. 

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Although this joint call didn’t mention the name of any political party, it showed anger against spiraling sectarianism, discrimination, marginalization and unprecedented violence against religious minorities including Muslims and Christians.

Indian artists and intelligentsia have no history of political interference. These perceptive people were too busy to care about politics and changes in government. But the last five years of BJP rule have forced some of them to come together and take a stand for freedom of expression and secularism.

The appeal cited Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, Where the Mind is Without Fear, saying its lines reflect the values of India’s constitution that stress equality and freedom of all citizens.

Last October, scientists and research scholars across India protested the government’s decision to integrate Hindu mythological concepts in science books of government schools and colleges. The BJP-led government has been endorsing Hindu claims that the internet existed before the Vedic Age (circa 1500-500 B.C.) in India.

Even Modi claimed that the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha was fixed with an elephant's head through plastic surgery available in ancient times in India.

Ramesh Pokhriyal, a BJP MP, said the first nuclear test was conducted in India in the second century B.C. by a Hindu sage called Kanad.

In February 2018, Satyapal Singh, minister for human resource development, contested Darwin’s theory of evolution by stating that no one has ever seen an ape turn into a human being. He even asserted that Hindu hymns had codified laws of motion before Isaac Newton.

The BJP aims to shape the national identity to match its view that India is a nation of and for Hindus. So-called historians and scientists are supporting its effort by producing text and documents to back up this ideology.

In a separate appeal, more than 600 theater artists urged people not to vote for the BJP. Their statement said “the very idea of India is under threat. Today, song, dance, laughter are under threat. Today, our beloved constitution is under threat. The institutions that have to nurture argument, debate and dissent have been suffocated. To question, to call out lies, to speak the truth, is branded ‘anti-national.’ The seeds of hatred have entered our food, prayers and festivals.”

However, the ruling BJP seems unmoved by such unexpected resistance from those usually seen as apolitical. The party has answered questions with jingoism. BJP leaders have openly ridiculed and trashed these voices as sponsored by Pakistan.

BJP leaders use shrill nationalistic speech, projecting opponents as supporters of archrival Pakistan, its Muslim-majority neighbor. It has become another tactic to confront the common man and spread the BJP’s version of nationalism.

All major BJP election rallies across India are centered on teaching “Islamic Pakistan” a lesson by waging a nuclear war and trashing it. India often accuses Pakistan of harboring Islamist militants on its soil.

Amid such hostility, the issues of the common man — unemployment, rocketing fuel prices, the falling economy, violence against religious minorities — have been forgotten.

The division among the intelligentsia was clear on April 20 when 400 authors signed a petition seeking support for PM Modi and the BJP in the polls.

Modi “secured a place of honor for our country in the comity of nations with his uncompromising commitment to India’s security, and by generating new streams of development and ensuring progress for the last man standing in the queue,” their petition stated.

These divisions are reflective of discord that has penetrated even the most remote communities, where even villagers have begun to see each other through the colors of their religion.

Will the windows that show India’s secularist image to the world be shut forever? Will the rulers continue behaving like proverbial ostriches, ignoring the threats to India’s tolerant and secular character menacingly looming large over the horizon?   

The election result will indicate the answers as many believe another five-year term for the BJP would be sufficient for Hindu groups to establish the nation of their dreams — a Hindu nation.

Umar Manzoor Shah is a journalist based in India’s Srinagar city and writes on interreligious affairs and politics.

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