Modi Lost in Delhi. It Doesn’t Matter

Muslim women protested against India’s new citizenship law in Mumbai last week. Credit Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times, via Getty Images
Muslim women protested against India’s new citizenship law in Mumbai last week. Credit Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times, via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a major defeat in elections for the Delhi state legislature. Amit Shah, the prime minister’s confidante and the country’s home minister, led a highly divisive and sectarian campaign foregrounding Hindu nationalism and demonizing the city’s Muslims, and tried to paint the opposition Aam Aadmi Party and its leaders as treasonous.

Yet out of Delhi’s 70 seats, Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah’s B.J.P. won a mere eight seats, and the A.A.P., led by Arvind Kejriwal, who has been the chief minister of Delhi since 2015, won 62.

Mr. Kejriwal, an anti-graft activist turned politician, focused the electoral campaign of his party on his record of governance — the significant improvement he made to the delivery of services in public hospitals, the quality of education and infrastructure in schools, and the cost of electricity in Delhi.

Delhi chose Mr. Kejriwal for his performance as chief minister. While the B.J.P. plastered Mr. Modi’s face across the city, it did not offer any candidates for the Delhi state government who were more impressive or convincing than Mr. Kejriwal and his team.

Mr. Modi and his party might have lost an election but they won the ideological battle by setting the terms of electoral politics: For electoral success in India, it is no longer acceptable to speak about equal citizenship and political rights of India’s Muslims or speak out against the violence and hostility they encounter.

The election in Delhi was held while India has been witnessing continuous protests against a citizenship law passed by Mr. Modi’s government in December that makes religion the basis for citizenship. The new law discriminates against Muslims and advances the Hindu nationalist agenda of reshaping India into a majoritarian Hindu nation.

Mr. Shah, the home minister, had insisted the citizenship law would be followed by a National Register of Citizens, or N.R.C., which would require citizens to submit a set of documents to prove they are Indians. India’s Muslims and liberals worried that the citizenship register would become a tool to exclude or threaten to exclude Indian Muslims from citizenship.

Over the past two months, protests against the citizenship law and the impending N.R.C. spread across the country, from university campuses to poor Muslim neighborhoods, from distant border states to starry avenues of Bollywood.

On Dec. 15, the police in Delhi, which reports to Mr. Modi’s government, violently attacked students at Jamia Millia Islamia, a university with a large number of Muslim students. After the police assault, women from Shaheen Bagh, a working-class, mostly Muslim neighborhood adjacent to university, gathered in protest against the citizenship law and blocked a major road passing through the area. A tent was set up on the road and the protest quickly took on the air of a defiant carnival.

The numbers swelled and every kind of Indian opposed to the citizenship law gathered at Shaheen Bagh in solidarity. Two bitter winter months have passed; the women continue their protest despite the cold and the attacks by Hindu nationalist activists.

Throughout the Delhi election campaign, Mr. Modi’s party targeted Shaheen Bagh and sought to frighten the city’s Hindus by emphasizing the Muslim-ness of the protesters. Islamophobic rhetoric has been normalized in Mr. Modi’s India, but the Delhi campaign intensified it. Mr. Shah, who is also the president of the B.J.P., set the tone when he asked his supporters to push the button against the B.J.P. electoral symbol on the electronic voting machines so hard that the (mostly Muslim) protesters in Shaheen Bagh would “feel the current.”

At a Delhi election rally, Anurag Thakur, Mr. Shah’s colleague and India’s minister of state for finance, raised a sinister slogan: “These traitors of the nation! Shoot them!” A few days later, two Hindu nationalist activists opened fire on students and protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia and in Shaheen Bagh.

Parvesh Varma, a member of the Parliament from Mr. Modi’s party, sought to whip up Hindu fears by describing the Shaheen Bagh protesters as murderers and rapists: “They will enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, and kill them. There is time today. Modi Ji and Amit Shah won’t come to save you tomorrow.” Other leaders from the party likened Shaheen Bagh to Pakistan and framed the Delhi election as a contest between India and Pakistan.

Mr. Kejriwal spoke against the citizenship law, calling it a distraction from Mr. Modi’s failure on the economy, but assiduously avoided confronting the Hindu nationalist rhetoric during the elections and ignored the attacks on Muslims.

When the police entered Jamia Milia Islamia and attacked the students, Mr. Kejriwal stayed silent for several days. When asked about the protests in Delhi, he declared that he would have cleared the road through Shaheen Bagh in two hours if the police in Delhi, which reports to the federal government, were under his control.

To emphasize his being a Hindu, Mr. Kejriwal publicly sang Hindu religious prayers and visited a temple soon after his victory speech. Essentially, he worked around the boundaries set by the Hindu nationalists and embraced a softer version of their politics.

The Delhi election suggests that India has entered an era where the ideological terms and the language of politics are set by the Hindu nationalists. To be electorally competitive, political parties will need to adhere to some variant of the Hindu nationalism and jingoism exemplified by Mr. Modi.

The “Modi consensus” has ensured that India’s Muslims are not only politically powerless but also politically invisible. Seventy-three years after independence, India’s Muslims are still fighting for equal citizenship. We are now putting our lives on the line, not to gain parity in jobs and education but to hold on to legal equality.

The protests against the new citizenship law have the air of a final cry to salvage our dignity before we are made second-class citizens, or worse, noncitizens.

In an election, while most citizens vote for material benefits and aspirations, India’s Muslims are reduced to voting for their security. Despite Mr. Kejriwal and his A.A.P.’s sidestepping the issues concerning Muslims, Delhi’s Muslims overwhelmingly backed his party because it is not actively hostile to them.

To interpret defeat of Mr. Modi’s party in Delhi with his project of Hindu majoritarianism would be a grave misreading of the verdict. In a recent survey, four-fifths of Delhi’s voters favored Mr. Modi and three-fourths of Delhi’s voters expressed satisfaction with his federal government.

It is unclear whether Mr. Kejriwal’s model of good governance and service delivery while ignoring the contentious sectarian and militant nationalist positions of the Hindu nationalists can be replicated outside the relatively small, urban state of Delhi.

Since its inception, the Hindu nationalist movement, of which the B.J.P. is the electoral branch, had a single goal: Hindu supremacy. There are no politicians who have the gumption to challenge Mr. Modi and his B.J.P. on that central vision. Mr. Modi and his party might lose the occasional election but they have won the ideological war.

Asim Ali is a writer and researcher working for the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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