Poll pitch for India’s capital plays up growing divisions


NEW DELHI (AP) — Campaigning for a crucial state election in India’s capital has reached a fever pitch as members of the Hindu nationalist-led government call for violence against minority Muslims and invoke the specter of arch-nemesis Pakistan to reverse course after a pair of losses in recent state polls.

Critics call the incendiary religious appeals a tactic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to win at the polls and divert attention from the sluggish economy, which expanded at a 4.5% annual pace in the last quarter, its slowest rate since mid-2018.

The election Saturday has also been seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s response to nearly two months of protests across India against a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some migrants of neighboring countries living in the country illegally of all South Asia’s major religions except Islam.

Modi’s party had anticipated a windfall in state elections after a landslide victory in national polls last year. A move last summer to revoke disputed Kashmir’s semi-autonomy and put the Muslim-majority region under lockdown, and the passage of the new citizenship law, have won him praise from supporters but little reward at the polls. BJP lost two important state elections last year.

The election in New Delhi, where 14.6 million voters are likely to cast ballots on Saturday, pits Modi’s party against the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party, or “common man” party, whose pro-poor policies have focused on fixing state-run schools, provided free healthcare and waived bus fare for women during the five years it has been in power.

A win would likely embolden Modi and his party, while a loss could further dent his image as an unstoppable political force.

During the campaigning that ended Thursday, Modi and other senior party leaders have focused their ire on a 45-day long sit-in led by Muslim women who have been blocking a highway for weeks through New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighborhood, to protest the citizenship law.

Modi has referred to the protesters as part of a “political design” and a “conspiracy.”

“This dog-whistle is basically a signal to his faithful to view the ongoing protests in Delhi through the lens of a well-cultivated prejudice against Muslims,” said Shuddhabrata Sengupta, an artist and curator and longtime Modi critic.

Other BJP leaders, however, have been more blatant.

A member of Parliament from Modi’s party cautioned at a public rally that the sit-in demonstrators would “enter people’s homes, rape women and then kill them off.” Another minister characterized the protesters as “traitors” and led a crowd in chanting the slogan “shoot them.”

Last week, a gunman fired shots at the protest site. As the police took him away, a video of the incident showed him saying: “In our country, only Hindus will prevail.” The man was immediately arrested and was in police custody.

For the Delhi election campaign, Modi tapped the top elected official of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Adityanath recently told a crowd assembled in Uttam Nagar, a densely-populated neighborhood in the capital, that Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s top elected leader, was dividing the country.

“Whenever Kejriwal is happy, Pakistan is happy too,” he said.

The BJP has over the years amplified its Hindu nationalist agenda fuelled by Modi’s extraordinary popularity.

By contrast, Kejriwal and the AAP have emphasized good governance, and a push to improve education and healthcare since its inception in 2013. In 2015, it went on to win a historic mandate in Delhi and beat the incumbent Congress party by bagging 67 out of 70 seats.

The Congress, a third party in contention for Saturday”s polls, has run a lackluster campaign and is expected to fare poorly.

But Congress, AAP and other opposition parties have banded together to denounce the BJP’s “communal polarization.”

Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP candidate and party spokesman, told The Associated Press that “nationalism is one of our main agenda and we will speak against those who plan to break India.”

Campaigning in the acrimonious election has also garnered admonishment by India’s election commission, which oversees the polls.

It banned two star campaigners from Modi’s party for 72 hours for hate speech.

Sanjay Kumar, a political scientist at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said many of the remarks made by politicians in the run-up to the polls qualified as such. And many Delhi voters blame the commission for failing to curb the rhetoric.

“The election commission should be more willing to recognize the threat posed by statements that are communal-driven,” said one voter, Shadab Abdullah.