2018: India’s Year of Turmoil

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga with others to mark the International Day of Yoga, in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2015. Modi led tens of thousands of people in the yoga session in the centre of the capital on Sunday to showcase the country's signature cultural export, which has prompted criticism of fomenting social divisions at home. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

A long-simmering dispute over a religious site may have another turn in the spotlight.

The entire atmosphere has become viciously communalized, and anti-Muslim comments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago are openly expressed in public speeches and private conversations. Senior BJP politicians have several times openly cast aspersions on the loyalty of Muslim Indians to the country. The latest example is the pronouncement by a prominent BJP member of parliament, Vinay Katiyar, on February 7 that Muslims “should go to Pakistan or Bangladesh. What are they doing here?” This statement echoed that made by another senior BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. In a thinly veiled reference to Muslim Indians, Singh declared that all those opposed to Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate for prime minister, should go to Pakistan, as they have no place in India.

In addition to the escalation of anti-Muslim rhetoric, in the last four years vigilante groups calling themselves “cow protectors” have attacked, killed and injured a number of Muslims and Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), allegedly for trading in cows or eating beef. The prime minister’s silence on this issue has been deafening. Ironically, quite often the police, without adequate evidence, have charged the victims of these attacks for violating the law against cow slaughter.

All this is happening in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections in early 2019. The BJP, which, in addition to its Hindutva card, had come to power promising economic development and prosperity across the board, is now faced with a major problem. Its market-friendly economic policies, which were really a carry-over from the earlier Congress government under Manmohan Singh, have brought economic benefits to sections of the urban population. However, even in urban areas these benefits are very unevenly divided, with the urban poor left out in the cold. The rural sector has, in fact, run into major trouble under Modi’s government despite his rhetoric to the contrary.

Now, with elections around the corner, the Modi government is making an effort to appease the rural farming population and the urban poor. This is clear from the latest budget, presented to Parliament a few weeks ago. However, since resources are limited, this means that the tax load on the urban middle class is likely to grow. When added to the extra burden imposed by the Goods and Service Tax (GST) levied by the government in 2017, this is expected to increase the unease among urban Indians with the Modi government.

The BJP government is faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, much of the rural population is disaffected by its past policies, which is likely to be reflected in their votes in 2019. On the other, the latest budget, when combined with the imposition of GST, could end up alienating those urban sectors that had formed the backbone of BJP support in the past. This is also likely to be reflected in the 2019 electoral results.

The BJP government and its parent body, the RSS, which is the fount of Hindu nationalism, as well as the multiple offshoots of the RSS, have realized that it is almost impossible for the Modi government to return to power on the basis of its economic record. The recent elections to the Gujarat state assembly, where Congress made substantial inroads into the BJP bastion, and by-elections in Rajasthan, another BJP stronghold, where Congress won all three seats up for grabs, have made this lesson clear to the government. Congress’s use of a “soft” Hindutva strategy in Gujarat to successfully wean away votes from the BJP has further convinced BJP strategists of the utility of a Hindutva route to electoral victory.