A stunning rebuke to Narendra Modi’s divisive, anti-Muslim rhetoric

Restoring faith in the nation’s secular foundations, voters across religious lines stressed on economic concerns and constitutional values.

Published : Jun 10, 2024 15:56 IST - 7 MINS READ

A Muslim woman leaves a polling station as others wait to vote during the seventh and last phase of India’s general election in Varanasi, India, June 1, 2024.

A Muslim woman leaves a polling station as others wait to vote during the seventh and last phase of India’s general election in Varanasi, India, June 1, 2024. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Priyanshu Singh

Love has illuminated my body

My inner self has brightened

My words now have the fragrance of musk”

—Kabir, 15th-century poet-philosopher from Varanasi

In the past decade, there appeared to be no limits to the exclusion-cum-violence, real and psychological, against India’s Muslims that the Narendra Modi regime and its ecosystem would not push. It seemed that many people did not care enough to oppose the segregation and profiling of minorities. It had, therefore, occasionally appeared to this commentator that the two-nation theory of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was being ghoulishly played out, as parts of India seemed to be a de facto Hindu Rashtra and a counter to Pakistan, an Islamic state.

We were embracing an ideology that diminished the ideas on which our independent nation was founded. It was not illogical to conclude that in the BJP-dominant parts of India, the nation’s largest minority was doomed as a people. Modi only reinforced these fears in the course of the 2024 campaign when he insulted and profiled Muslims in an almost manic way and sought to stoke fears about them snatching all the nation’s resources.

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There appeared to be no end to the metaphorical and literal process of kicking an entire community on the backside, as a Delhi policeman infamously did to men bent in namaz (prayer) in the national capital on March 8.

The result of the 2024 election, therefore, is a seismic moment for Indian Muslims that restores faith in the fundamentals of democracy. Perhaps we can breathe easy again, take breath in and out in some comfort that all people can again be safe in their homeland. Not just Muslims, but the dissenters, the protesters, the media, the activists, and the ordinary citizens who dare to oppose.

The conversation has opened up in fascinating ways. One long message suggests that the open targeting of Muslims by the Prime Minister in many campaign speeches did not just scare the country’s largest minority; the words, casually thrown around about mutton, mangalsutra, Muslims, infiltrators, traitors, were heard loud and clear and repelled many Hindus as well. It also occurred to many voters to ask if this was all the mighty Modi had to say after a decade in power.

I, too, found anecdotal evidence of indifference and/or revulsion to the Hindu versus Muslim fulminations at the top. In 48 degrees Celsius heat on the Varanasi ghats during the last leg of the election campaign, a pundit told me that he worried about what Modi wants to turn him and his children into: “Are we to be the people whose identity and politics is to be decided by how much we can hate Muslims? Is that what our mantras and philosophy are about?” Prophetically, on the same day, the mahant of a temple in the city said that there was always a limit to some things. “This Hindu versus Muslim will not work. It will backfire.”

And then the result came, and a friend called from Varanasi where Modi’s victory margin had sharply come down. Our Kashi, he said, is the city of Lord Siva and of Sant Kabir; it is the home of Muslim weavers and Ustad Bismillah Khan; “Modi was just a visitor—for the last time.” He also shared the nugget that the Prime Minister had the narrowest lead in the Assembly segment where the Kashi corridor was constructed.

The huge hole in the BJP’s numbers came from Uttar Pradesh, and some BJP supporters have said that it was because all the State’s Muslims (20 per cent of the population) ganged up and voted with their hands and feet against Modi. Sure, Muslims voted against the BJP, but the sucker punch was delivered by Hindus for various reasons, such as their economic condition, the increased perception of Modi being a pro-rich figure (yes, electoral bonds were at the back of people’s minds), and Dalits choosing the INDIA bloc for the strategic reason of defeating the BJP.

The candidate selection of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress was excellent and increased the wind speed of the gathering storm that sought to protect the Constitution. Free rations, people decided, would not make them the bonded labour of the BJP, as a Dalit worker in Chandauli told me.

The greatest defeat

The greatest defeat came from Faizabad, which includes Ayodhya, where the SP’s Awadhesh Prasad, a Dalit candidate on a general category seat, trounced the mighty BJP. This will radiate, as it is the very site that has symbolised the party’s rise to power through the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, the demolition of the Babri mosque and, in January this year, the inauguration of the Ram temple and puja by several VIPs, with Modi officiating as a sort of grand priest. The bluff has been called, and it turns out that people in Ayodhya were not blinded by the razzmatazz and spectacle. Even as their lands were acquired, their traffic blocked, and citizens pushed around, they were just biding their time to send a message to both Lucknow and New Delhi.

True, hate-mongering will not go away, and it is in the nature of the BJP and the RSS to flag divisive issues to gather their cadres and unite Hindu society over caste differences. They are ideologically committed to an Us versus Them ideology, as right-wing formations across the world are. They cannot biologically change their DNA, to use a prime ministerial turn of phrase. It is not over, the obsession with halal and hijab, Muslim this and Muslim that.

Still, the glass is half full, and I disagree with those who say it is empty. For there are arguments that it is all somewhat meaningless from the perspective of minorities, as the BJP-dominated narratives/atmospherics have resulted in many opposition parties not being able to openly speak up for Muslims or field Muslim candidates. True, the number of Muslim candidates who contested in 2024 fell to 78 from 115 in 2019.

Yet, there is something fabulous about the coalition of the poor that the SP-Congress forged with Dalits and EBCs added to their Yadav/Muslim voter blocs; it is this that would shift the ground from under the feet of the BJP. Indian Muslims have long understood that, with some exceptions such as Asaduddin Owaisi (of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) repeatedly winning from Hyderabad, it is through coalition with other communities that their preferred parties can win.

In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, Mayawati’s BSP fielded the highest number of Muslim candidates at 20 but won zero seats, as the community’s vote overwhelmingly headed to the INDIA bloc. Post-election, Mayawati said that her party gave ample representation to Muslims but would think hard about repeating this to prevent huge losses in the future.

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There is a message, too, from the Muslim-dominated Dhubri seat in Assam, won in the past by Badruddin Ajmal, AIUDF, who solely positions for Muslims. He was defeated by an amazing margin of 10 lakh votes by Rakibul Hussain of the Congress. The message in all this is that Muslims need not vote for fellow Muslims or parties that speak solely for Muslims.

Modi has been cut to size, but he is still Prime Minister and the BJP the single largest party with many State governments. The challenges remain, but the capacity to fight back has turned out to be robust despite the playing field not being level. Many problems persist, and new challenges shall emerge, but many of the winners of this round do have their futures entwined in also protecting minority rights. This also includes two parties, the JD(U) and the TDP, who could be pulling the strings in the third term of a Prime Minister who has turned out to be entirely biological.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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