India's bellwether election: A test for Modi's Hindu nationalist project
On Sunday, more than 20 million residents of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh lined up outside polling booths to cast their vote in a highly polarised regional election that is widely regarded as a bellwether for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity in the country.
The gigantic state, with a population of 150 million registered voters, is going to the polls in a seven-phase election that started earlier this month.
The vote is widely seen as a test of the prime minister's popularity before the general elections in 2024.
"Uttar Pradesh is considered a bastion of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and has seen highly communal political campaigns targeting the minority Muslim community"
"Whatever happens in Uttar Pradesh has a reflection on the national election and national politics because the state is the most populous in India with 80 parliamentarians coming from the region," Shabnam Hashmi, a veteran rights activist based in New Delhi, told The New Arab.
Uttar Pradesh is considered a bastion of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has seen highly communal political campaigns targeting the minority Muslim community - which forms close to 20% of the province and 15% overall in India.
In vicious election campaigns prior to the voting, leaders belonging to the ruling BJP have threatened to "convert Muslims to Hinduism", "pull off their beards", and referred to them as traitors.
The atmosphere is no different from five years ago, when the BJP registered a landslide victory and took more than 75% of the total seats in the region - the biggest majority for any party in more than three decades.
Experts say the hate-filled campaigns help to strengthen the BJP’s prospects.
"Raising anti-Muslim rhetoric or inciting communal sentiments consolidates the larger Hindu voter base and that is something the ruling party [BJP] has traditionally banked upon," says Dr Mohammad Reyaz, an election observer and Assistant Professor of Communications at Aliah University in India.
Reyaz believes that there will no respite in the obnoxious hate campaigns against minorities, at least in the short run. "There is talk of a larger Hindu state and Hindu pride where anti-Muslim sentiment plays a large role in wooing voters."
Anti-Muslim agenda for electoral gains
Uttar Pradesh, which is currently ruled by the BJP, has seen a series of controversial decisions targeting Muslims.
The state has been on a name-changing spree of places and locations associated with Muslim rulers of the medieval era. It has also enacted a law that discourages interfaith marriages, based on a controversial conspiracy theory that Muslims are luring Hindu girls to convert to Islam as part of a so-called “love jihad”.
The state has also seen several cases of lynching by so-called cow vigilante mobs, who accuse Muslims of slaughtering the animal revered in Hindu traditions. The government has been accused of inaction and siding with the perpetrators, who are supporters of their Hindutva ideology.
Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who currently heads the state, has termed the election as a battle between the "80 percent and 20 percent", a reference to the demographics of Hindus and Muslims respectively.
"Raising anti-Muslim rhetoric or inciting communal sentiments consolidates the larger Hindu voter base and that is something the ruling party has traditionally banked upon"
During the last few years, the BJP-led central government in India has also passed a host of legislation that critics term as being discriminatory to minorities, especially Muslims.
In 2019, New Delhi revoked the special autonomy of the disputed Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two territories under its direct control.
It also passed a controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 that grants citizenship rights to all communities from neighbouring countries barring Muslims.
At least 22 Muslims were killed by police in Uttar Pradesh when protests erupted against CAA. The regional police were accused of indiscriminately firing at Muslim protestors and vandalising their properties.
Experts have even raised the alarm of a possible campaign against Muslims in India which could amount to genocide.
Last month, Professor Gregory Stanton, the founder of the Genocide Watch group that predicted the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, warned that a Muslim genocide could "very well happen in India".
Juan E Mendez, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide also echoed these concerns and called the situation in India "deeply dangerous" and "disturbing".
The BJP's strong election machinery
Even though the ruling government has faced severe criticism for mismanagement during the pandemic and the inability to control rising prices or unemployment, most exit polls are giving the BJP a clear edge.
"The BJP has been able to successfully delink the problems from the image of their leaders," says Shivam Shankar Singh, a political analyst who is also the author of 'How to Win an Indian Election'.
"They have been able to create a narrative that if any party apart from the BJP wins then Muslims would become powerful and create a nuisance," Singh told The New Arab.
Singh also believes that the money associated with the party makes it extremely difficult for opposition parties to compete against them.
"The BJP is getting at least 70 to 80 percent of all the political funding in India and the rest, 20 percent, is divided between multiple parties in multiple states. So, in a situation like that, funding for the BJP is not a problem and it is a problem for everyone else," Singh added.
The BJP, widely seen as a pro-corporate party, receives more than three-quarters of the total political funding in India.
Many critics of the government, however, feel that elections are closer than the mainstream media is portraying.
"The media is completely controlled by the BJP. They successfully manage to divert the real issues of the public by fanning communal tensions. Even the exit poll projections can't be trusted since these are surveys done by powerful media houses close to them [BJP]," Shabnam Hashmi said.
Hashmi is hopeful that voters will not buy the Hindu versus Muslim narrative created by the BJP.
“You can see how desperately [Chief Minister] Yogi, [Prime Minister] Modi and [Union Home Minister] Amit Shah are giving provocative statements to polarise elections. Perhaps, they have got to know that on the ground the tide is turning against them," she added.
Leaders of the socialist Samajwadi Party - the region's main opposition party - also feel the communalisation of issues won't reap benefits for the BJP this time around.
"They have been able to create a narrative that if any party apart from the BJP wins then Muslims would become powerful and create a nuisance"
"In the first three phases of the elections that have happened so far, the communalisation hasn’t dominated. People are focusing on basic issues like the regularisation of jobs in government, pension schemes, water, and electricity issues. We are confident of our win," Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, National Spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, told The New Arab.
The ruling BJP, however, is upbeat about their victory in the elections.
Rakesh Tripathi, the spokesperson for the party in UP, believes they are set to form the government again in the province.
"We have done a lot of developmental work in the region over the last five years and are seeking votes on that. We are being wrongfully accused of communalising issues," Tripathi told The New Arab.
Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in New Delhi and has written extensively on South Asian politics and minority issues.
Follow him on Twitter: @HananZaffar