Prime sinister: Under Narendra Modi, India has become a less welcoming place for religious minorities. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

You got some bad dudes coming in,” Donald Trump told the West Virginia crowd. It was the end of September 2018, and the president was trying to rally his base before the midterms. Democrats, Trump warned, wanted open borders. They wanted sanctuary cities that “unleash violent predators” and leave “innocent Americans” at the mercy of “really ruthless animals.”

Several days before—and thousands of miles away—the president of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) delivered a similar address. “There are illegal infiltrators in Delhi,” Amit Shah said. “Like termites, they have eaten the future of the country. Shouldn’t they be uprooted?” The audience cheered, and Shah pointed toward the crowd. He accused the BJP’s rivals of being too cowardly to deal with undocumented immigrants, people who “enter here, throw bombs, and kill innocent citizens.”

To an American, Indian politics can seem impossible to follow. There are more than thirty-five parties with seats in the country’s national parliament, many specific to particular linguistic communities. Together, they serve nearly 900 million registered voters, an electorate more than four times the size of America’s and close to twice as large as the population of the entire European Union.

But the country’s seventeenth general election featured many themes that Westerners would recognize. The country’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won reelection, is a right-wing nationalist widely seen as having made India a less tolerant place for minorities. Religious hate crimes have increased more than fivefold since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014. Most of the perpetrators are part of the country’s vast Hindu majority. Most of the victims belong to the country’s population of 190 million Muslims.

“The BJP has always been known for its Hindu nationalism, which, more often than not, translates into anti-Muslim ideology on the ground,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a prominent Indian journalist, told me. When the party and its supporters speak about immigrants, “the whole idea is to whip up a kind of xenophobic, jingoistic sentiment, where the enemy is perceived to be the Muslim refugees who are reportedly taking over.”

This isn’t just through speeches. India has right-wing TV networks where anchors angrily berate liberals as unpatriotic. The country is experiencing its own fake-news epidemic. And during the 2019 contest, activists and journalists reported that millions of Indian citizens may have been purged from voter rolls. Most of those missing appeared to be Muslims, low-caste Hindus, and women.

“India is several years further along down a path of vicious nationalism than we are,” said Audrey Truschke, a professor of Indian history at Rutgers University. “It’s a wake-up call to be more proactive.”

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an avowed progressive. “It is the duty and responsibility of the majority community, whether in the matter of language or religion, to pay particular attention to what the minority wants,” he declared in 1955. “The majority is strong enough to crush the minority which might not be protected. Therefore, whenever such a question arises, I am always in favor of the minority.”

These beliefs were, by all accounts, genuine. They were also critical for Nehru’s project: creating a stable and democratic India. The country hosts dozens of languages. It is the birthplace of multiple religions and is home to hundreds of millions of people who practice non-native faiths. Nehru knew that keeping India free and whole required tolerance.

It’s therefore no surprise that he clashed with Hindu nationalists. After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru’s government temporarily banned a far-right group with which the assailant was associated, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Historians say the RSS was related to the fascist organizations of interwar Europe. B. S. Moonje, one of the group’s founders, visited Italy in 1931, where he met Benito Mussolini and toured the National Fascist Party’s military schools and educational institutes. He was impressed. “The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people,” Moonje wrote. “India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus.” The RSS, he continued, “is of this kind.”

The Indian election featured many themes that Westerners would recognize. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won reelection, is a right-wing nationalist. Religious hate crimes, mostly against Muslims, have increased more than fivefold since Modi came to power in 2014.

For decades, the organization’s direct political impact was limited, kept in check by the electoral hegemony of the Indian National Congress, the party of Gandhi and Nehru. Instead, the RSS operated in the background, with a particular focus on teaching children its Hindu nationalist ideology. 

One of those children was Narendra Modi. Born into a poor family in the westernmost part of the country, Modi joined the RSS when he was eight. During his early twenties, he led the party’s regional student wing. By the age of thirty-one, he was one of the group’s principal leaders in his home state. In 2001, the RSS tapped Modi to lead its political party, the BJP, in the state of Gujarat. The BJP already controlled Gujarat’s parliament, and Modi became the state’s chief minister, akin to a U.S. governor. It’s a position he would hold for the next twelve and a half years.

As Modi tells it, he led Gujarat through a period of great investment and development. The state’s economy did in fact grow steadily under Modi, although economists say that may have more to do with its coastal location and history of trade than with the chief minister’s policies.

But Modi’s tenure was also defined by disturbing communal violence. In 2002, fifty-eight people were killed when a train coach carrying Hindu nationalists was set ablaze inside a Muslim neighborhood. How the fire began is a subject of intense dispute. What happened next is not: Hindus across the state rioted. They forced children to drink kerosene, stabbed people to death, and electrocuted entire families. Ahsan Jafri, a Muslim member of parliament, was dragged out of his house, covered with wax, and burned alive. All in all, the rioting killed as many as 2,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. (Hundreds of Hindus died as well.) More than 500 Islamic religious sites were either damaged or destroyed.

Indian politicians continue to argue over Modi’s involvement with the pogrom. But at a minimum, it’s clear he did little to intervene. Legislators from his party helped lead attackers to their targets. A senior minister in Modi’s cabinet told an investigatory tribunal that, in the aftermath of the train fire, Modi instructed police officials not to stand in the way of Hindu vengeance. That minister was later shot dead in his car.

In Gujarat’s December 2002 elections, less than a year after the riots, the BJP increased its state parliamentary majority. The party performed best in districts most affected by the violence. During the campaign, BJP advertisements featured images of the train coach that burned.

Modi has denied any wrongdoing, and an investigatory team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute him. But the violence rocked the world. In 2005, George W. Bush’s State Department refused to let Modi enter the United States, citing his “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

When Modi was tapped to lead the BJP into the 2014 general election, he made little mention of the riots. Instead, he campaigned as a pro-business politician committed to fighting corruption, liberalizing the economy, and paring down India’s bloated state bureaucracy. The message clicked, and he won in a landslide. The BJP became the first party in thirty years to win an outright majority in India’s fractious 545-member parliament. The incumbent Congress Party, the storied institution of Nehru and Gandhi, won just forty-four seats.

Modi was now welcomed into the international community. Barack Obama called almost immediately after the elections to congratulate the new prime minister. In September 2014, nine years after he was denied a visa, Modi traveled to the United States to meet with Obama, address the United Nations General Assembly, and hold a rally for 19,000 adoring fans at Madison Square Garden.

In 2005, George W. Bush’s State Department refused to let Modi enter the United States, citing his “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

Swadesh Singh, a political scientist at Delhi University, told me Modi’s first term lived up to the hype: “Prime Minister Modi has started and provided an ecosystem for entrepreneurship.” As evidence, he cited the array of programs the BJP has launched to streamline and digitize India’s economy. One prominent scheme is bringing banking services to rural areas. Another, called Digital India, will expand high-speed internet and make government services available online.

But many of these programs draw on, or are rebrands of, policies created by Modi’s predecessors, said Sunil Khilnani, the director of the India Institute at King’s College London. Much of the Digital India plan, for instance, began under the previous government. And Modi’s first signature achievement—streamlining the country’s tax code—was initially proposed by the Congress Party. India’s GDP growth under the BJP government, while strong, is roughly in line with what it was before.

It’s also unclear to what extent the public can trust the Modi government’s economic figures. In January, one state agency estimated that India’s unemployment rate from 2017 to 2018 was 6.1 percent—a forty-five-year high. But the government refused to release this data, prompting two of the agency’s officials to leak their findings to the press. The other government department traditionally responsible for employment data, the Labor Bureau, abruptly stopped releasing it in 2016. But outside estimates suggest that unemployment is rising. India’s economy simply isn’t growing fast enough to accommodate its increasing population.

“We’ve had five years of BJP rule in India, and we’ve seen what it means. It does not mean greater economic growth,” Audrey Truschke said. “What we have seen is a significant uptick, really a surge, in violence against religious minorities.”

In April 2017, Pehlu Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from the Indian state of Haranya, was driving home with two of his neighbors and two of his sons. Khan had cows he had purchased in neighboring Rajasthan in the back of his truck. Cows are considered holy by many Indian Hindus, and killing them is outlawed in many states. Khan and his sons said they bought the animals not to slaughter, but to milk. But, while still in Rajasthan, they were stopped in the street by a mob, which pulled the passengers out of their vehicles and beat them savagely. Two days later, the fifty-five-year-old Khan died.

The attackers filmed the assault, and it spread across the internet. Civil rights groups protested the murder, but Rajasthan’s BJP-led government mostly blamed Khan. “People know cow trafficking is illegal, but they do it,” the state’s home minister said. “Cow worshippers try to stop them. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a crime to take the law in their [own] hands.” The police later charged Khan’s sons with transporting cattle for slaughter. The surviving farmers argued that they in fact had the necessary permits to transport cows for dairy production.

Khan is just one of the many people who have been maimed or killed by “cow vigilantes” since Modi took office. Almost all of the victims of these lynchings are Muslims or low-caste Hindus. (Higher castes are more likely to consider the animals sacred.)

India’s cattle laws are almost entirely decided by the states, but the BJP has long made protecting cows one of its aims. Modi has rarely commented on the country’s cow-related violence. Not until several months after Khan’s murder, and after at least three more people were similarly killed, did Modi speak out. “Violence is not a solution to the problems,” he said.

One year later, Modi introduced a nationwide ban on selling cattle for slaughter. But the country’s supreme court, which in July 2018 warned that India was descending into “mobocracy,” blocked the ban from taking effect. The petitioners argued that the law would needlessly undermine industries that employ many Muslims and low-caste Hindus. The chief justice agreed. “The livelihood of people should not be affected by this,” he wrote.

Polls had suggested that Modi would need coalition partners to stay in power. But the polling was wrong. Much like in America’s 2016 contest and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, right-wing nationalists overperformed.

Swadesh Singh, who helps lead a pro-Modi activist group, argued that these incidents unfairly skew Modi’s record on religious tolerance. “The last big communal violence took place in 2013,” before Modi took office, he said. “Small incidents are a law-and-order problem, which should be tackled by the state governments, because law and order is a state subject.”

But under Modi’s reign, the BJP has become similarly dominant at the state level, giving the prime minister considerable sway over regional politics. The man he picked to lead Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, is a Hindu priest who has been accused of weaponizing the police force against Muslims. Reporting suggests that the state has seen an explosion in orchestrated shoot-outs against Muslims. It’s a charge the chief minister hasn’t exactly denied. “In 1,200 encounters, more than forty criminals have been killed,” he said in one speech. “This trend will not stop.”

Journalists say it’s becoming more difficult to cover the violence. “There’s a relatively small section of the media that’s really criticizing the government and holding truth to power,” Guha Thakurta told me. Many newspapers, he explained, are dependent on the government for advertising revenue. One of India’s largest newspapers allegedly fired its editor in chief under pressure from the BJP. That editor had placed a “Hate Tracker” on the newspaper’s website to catalog the country’s hate crimes. After he left, the feature was taken down.

Two months before Indians began voting, Modi ordered air strikes against Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbor and geopolitical rival. The strikes came in the wake of a suicide attack in Pulwama, a district in Indian-administered Kashmir, by a terrorist group based in Pakistan. The attack killed forty Indian paramilitary soldiers. 

For the remainder of the campaign, the prime minister routinely referenced Pakistan and the attacks in his messaging. “Can your first vote be dedicated to the valiant soldiers who carried out the air strike in Pakistan?” Modi asked young Indians. “Can your first vote be dedicated to the brave martyrs of Pulwama?” The BJP also intensified its focus on religious identity. It tried to tie the Congress Party to Pakistan. It claimed that other competing parties were treating illegal immigrants as a “vote bank” and again promised to kick them out. The day voting began, the party Twitter account tweeted: “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus, and Sikhs.” Left out were Christians and Muslims. 

On May 23, the BJP won a landslide victory, picking up more seats than it did in the previous election. Even after the Pakistan air strikes, this result was unexpected. High unemployment was thought to have dented the BJP’s popularity. The party had performed poorly in recent state elections, losing three state legislatures to the Congress Party during December 2018. General election polling suggested that it would need coalition partners to stay in power. But the polling was wrong. Much like in America’s 2016 contest and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, right-wing nationalists overperformed. 

Singh told me that Modi’s reelection was a vindication of the BJP’s economic program. “Over the span of his first term, Modi tried to reach every section of society through a range of schemes and programs,” he said. “It has been a result of this that the 2019 elections have defied the traditional vertical identities of caste, language, and religion, among others.”

But surveys suggest that the electorate was indeed polarized along religious grounds. One post-election study found that 54 percent of all Hindus wanted the Modi government to return, while only 15 percent of Muslims and 17 percent of Christians did. These findings suggest a different conclusion: majoritarian nationalism is incredibly difficult to defeat. 

In West Bengal, for example—a Hindu-majority but traditionally left-leaning state—the BJP promised to implement a controversial citizens’ register designed to track down illegal immigrants and evict them from the country. That appeal may have worked. In the 2014 elections, when the BJP became the first party in thirty years to win an outright parliamentary majority nationwide, it only won two of West Bengal’s forty-two seats. This year, however, it won eighteen.

“A large part of Modi’s victory can be attributed to nationalist and religion-based emotions which were incited to appease the majority before the elections,” said Dhruv Rathee, an Indian activist and political commentator. “The BJP’s return could worsen the communal divisions in the country, seeing their previous track record.”

Early evidence suggests this may be right. The day after the elections, a video of Hindus thrashing three Muslims in the name of cow protection went viral. On May 25, a Muslim man was allegedly beaten by a Hindu mob while returning from his mosque. But in a speech the next day, Modi said that India’s minorities live in “imagined fear.”

In the lead-up to the contest, Singh told me that the election would be a turning point in Indian history. “This is not just a battle of votes,” he said. “This is a battle of ideas and narratives.”

On that, Modi’s supporters and critics agree. “This is not really a routine moment in Indian democracy,” Sunil Khilnani told me. He worried that continued BJP rule will undermine Nehru’s vision of an India that is tolerant, stable, and free. “In the Indian constitution, being Indian was not defined by any particular bloodline or religion or language or ethnicity. And the BJP have been trying to change that,” he said. “Five more years of the current government and India may really start to look like quite a different place.”

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94