In India there is increasing concern that minorities are being told they exist merely on the goodwill of the majority. For some of India’s 140 million Muslims it is enough to debate withdrawing from public life
The world breathed a sigh of relief last week as the Islamophobe populist Geert Wilders failed to become the head of the biggest party in Holland. The respite from elected bigotry did not last long. On Sunday an even more stridently anti-Muslim extremist took power in the biggest election of this year. Uttar Pradesh, with a population of more than 200 million, is not an independent nation. It is India’s biggest and most important state. UP, as it is known, by itself would be the world’s fourth biggest democracy – behind the rest of India, the United States, and Indonesia. In a stunning victory, the ruling Bharatiya Janata party swept the state elections, winning, along with its allies, 80% of the seats. Elections here are the most significant in India. UP sends 80 MPs to India’s national parliament of 545 seats. Regardless of party, they pay careful attention to the mood of UP’s electorate. If the nation’s governing parties do well in UP, parliamentarians feel they ought to stay in line. If opposition parties do well in UP, then gridlock rules in Delhi.
The man chosen by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to lead UP, home of Hinduism’s holy Ganges river and the Moghul tomb of Taj Mahal, is a fellow Hindu nationalist, Yogi Adityanath. Mr Adityanath is a Hindu priest who, while elected five times from his temple’s town, has been shown repeatedly to be contemptuous of democratic norms. He has been accused of attempted murder, criminal intimidation and rioting. He says young Muslim men had launched a “love jihad” to entrap and convert Hindu women. Mother Teresa, he claimed, wanted to Christianise India. He backs a Donald Trump-style travel ban to stop “terrorists” coming to India. On the campaign trail, Mr Adityanath warned: “If [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men”. This cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. The argument that once in power the BJP would become more reasonable does not wash. There’s little sign India’s constitutional protections would enable the BJP to continue in power while the dynamics of its wider movement are kept in check. Mr Adityanath, now a powerful figure, is signalling that in India minorities exist merely on the goodwill of the majority. Step out of line and there will be blood. For some of India’s 140 million Muslims the threat is enough to see them debate withdrawing from public life to avoid further polarisation.
Mr Modi’s BJP is full of religious zealots. He himself claimed plastic surgeons in ancient India grafted an elephant head on to a human thousands of years ago. The BJP’s skill is producing a circus to divert attention from how poorly the country is doing. This has been successful: voters overwhelmingly endorsed Mr Modi’s decision last November to cancel high-value banknotes – the so-called demonetisation of 86% of all currency – which they were told was a key anti-corruption reform.
The public, and especially the poor, appear to put up with the chaos because they wrongly believe the rich suffered more. They did not because the wealthy long ago converted ill-gotten cash into houses, businesses and jewellery. The turmoil cost the economy, experts say, an estimated £14bn. Money that might have been better spent in UP providing electricity to half of households that don’t have it, or tackling the highest infant mortality rate in India. The country instead is told that Hindus must have a temple on the site of a Muslim mosque demolished by a BJP-led mob in 1992 because it was said to be the birthplace of a deity. This is a nation that once was said to suceed in spite of the gods. Now it is going backwards because of them.