Indian opposition accuses Modi of divisive rhetoric as religion sours polls

By Pratap Chakravarty - RFI
India  Himanshu Sharma, AFP
© Himanshu Sharma, AFP

With India's mega-election underway, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding onto hope of seeing his ruling Hindu nationalist BJP win a third consecutive term. But ahead of the resumption of voting Monday, the opposition has accused India's election watchdog of not doing enough to stop Modi's polarising claims.

The opposition India National Congress Party's complaints to the Election Commission were triggered by 74-year-old Modi's 21 April visit to Rajasthan state. 

During the trip, Modi accused the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, of plotting to redistribute wealth of Hindus among Muslims – India's single largest religious minority – if it came to power.

“You are talking in your manifesto of snatching gold ornaments,” Modi told a rally in the state's Banswara district.

Modi claimed that the Congress had said Muslims were "the rightful inheritors of the nation's wealth". 

Following the speech, Congress asked the electoral commission – that is charged with enforcing election rules to prevent parties promoting division based on religion, caste, or language in the multi-ethnic nation – to take action against Modi.

The party maintains his allegations were "divisive, malicious and targeted a particular religious community” and aimed to foment hostility.

His statements were “far worse than any other made by a sitting prime minister in the history of India,” the opposition also claimed. 

The party also insisted their 2024 poll manifesto did not mention stealing anything from Hindus.

Delayed response under fire

The watchdog did not issue any rulings against Modi's party, but did ask for a response from BJP chief J.P. Nadda, to answer for the PM's divisive speech.

They also sent a notice to the Congress in response to three complaints filed against them by the BJP.

The Congress hit back saying the commission was "setting a precedent of helpless inaction" by delaying a response to their complaint until 25 April.

In a letter sent last Friday, the opposition claimed that the commission's choice not to penalise the BJP would further their use of religious symbols and rhetoric in campaigning – in violation of electoral laws. 

“The commission's failure to take suitable action will further undermine its credibility," said Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury, as other opposition groups joined the Congress' criticisms. 

Yechury added that the commission's inaction will lead to further corruption of an "environment for a free and fair poll”.

'State versus Muslim' vote

Modi's comments have marked a change in BJP's election tact.

Previously, the party had focussed on talks of building a majestic Hindu temple, developing a muscular foreign policy, growing the economy and shrinking dependence on technology imports.

“It is not a Hindu versus Muslim election. It could be called a 'State versus Muslim' election,” the popular Frontline magazine said.

Monday will mark the beginning of the fifth leg of what is the worlds largest democratic election, with almost one billion eligible voters. 

Voting will be held in 49 seats in eight states including two in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and three in states run by opposition parties at odds with Modi's Hindu nationalists.

Since the 19 April start of the staggered balloting, Indians have voted in 379 constituencies, with 163 seats remaining. 

Final election results are expected on 4 June.