By Ronojoy Sen
June 1, 2019
After a bitter election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the Parliament premises was one of reconciliation and unity. Modi reached out to India’s minorities, who have traditionally not been supporters of BJP. One of the things he said was that minorities in India had been deceived “through an imaginary fear created for the purpose of vote bank politics”. He added that the BJP would have to “pierce” through this deception and “gain trust”. The prime minister also added a new phrase “Sabka Vishwas (everyone’s trust)” to his earlier slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (development for all)”.
One of the failings of Modi’s first term had been its tardy record in curbing acts of religious intolerance and violence. Modi’s first term had also empowered fringe Hindu groups and anti-minority voices. While Modi had periodically spoken about BJP being an inclusive party and punishing instigators of religious violence, it has often been a case of too little, too late. Now Modi has the opportunity to set the record straight, put the election rhetoric behind him and assuage fears that India is taking the majoritarian route.
Some of the candidates who got elected on BJP tickets are likely to prove a challenge to Modi’s post-election resolve. There has been plenty written on BJP’s nomination of Pragya Thakur, a terror accused out on bail. Among the many inflammatory things that Thakur said during her election was to defend Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse.
Though Thakur retracted her statement following pressure from the BJP high command, she is now an elected member of Parliament. However, it is not only Thakur’s election which has caused disquiet. While BJP refused to nominate several of its sitting MPs, it still went with many of its rabble rousers known for regularly making religiously charged and intemperate remarks. Some of them have also found a place in the new Union council of ministers. If Modi is to keep his word, he has to rein in these elements.
More than these individual MPs, what is worrying is that BJP’s landslide win has been achieved largely without the support of minorities, particularly the nearly 200 million strong Muslim population in India. According to the post-poll survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), nationwide only 9% of Muslims voted for BJP. Another credible survey pegged the Muslim vote at 10%. The figures for India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, show low levels of Muslim support for BJP. According to CSDS, in UP, where a fifth of the population is Muslim, 8% of Muslims voted for BJP.
Muslim representation in Parliament is also at an all-time low. The newly elected Lok Sabha has 26 Muslim MPs, a slight increase of three from the last house. At just under 5%, this is the second lowest proportion of Muslim MPs to population, the lowest having been in 2014. The proportion of Muslims in Parliament is way lower than their share of India’s population, which stood at 14% in 2011.
The numbers get even starker when one looks at BJP’s numbers. Of BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha MPs in 2019, only one is Muslim. This is an improvement from the last Parliament where BJP did not have a single Muslim among its 282 MPs. The Union council of ministers, too, has just one Muslim.
The numbers in the state assemblies are no better. For instance, in the 2017 UP assembly elections where BJP won 325 seats, the party did not field a single Muslim candidate. The numbers suggest that BJP has worked out a strategy where it consolidates the majority Hindu vote, irrespective of caste, while at the same time making the minority vote irrelevant.
Modi’s conciliatory message at the start of his second term is welcome. He will, however, have to back his words with action. With a resounding mandate, Modi’s actions in his second term will determine whether India remains a pluralist democracy, albeit an imperfect one, or slides towards a majoritarian polity, as some fear. The world will be watching whether Modi carries through with the promise, made in his victory speech, of taking everybody along.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.