Modi’s India: A decade of popularity and polarisation

Nawab Khan, who lives in Lohta, says weavers like him have become poorer in the past 10 years.

“The only way to prosper is to be a BJP supporter, or else you are left to struggle. Those who buy sarees have become richer, and those [predominantly Muslims] who make them have become poorer,” he alleges.

The BJP’s Dileep Patel, who is in charge of 12 parliamentary seats including Varanasi, dismisses persistent allegations about Muslims being sidelined, or the government discriminating against them, and says welfare schemes are distributed fairly.

He blames opposition parties for “frightening our Muslim brothers and sisters” before Mr Modi came to power in 2014.

“But since then, they don’t feel scared and their trust in the BJP is rising day by day,” he claims, mentioning the criminalisation of triple talaq, or the practice of “instant divorce”, as a move particularly appreciated by Muslim women.

Yet, in the past 10 years, there have been numerous attacks on Muslims by right-wing groups, many of them deadly, and anti-Muslim hate speech has soared.

“When India and Pakistan were partitioned, our ancestors rejected Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s [founder of Pakistan] call and stayed in this country. We have also given our blood to build this country. Yet we are treated as second-class citizens,” says Athar Jamal Lari, who is contesting against Mr Modi in Varanasi.

And in recent weeks, some of that feeling has appeared to bubble to the surface as the BJP’s campaign has shifted from the government’s track record to shrill rhetoric against Muslims.. Mr Modi himself has been accused of using divisive, Islamophobic language, especially at election rallies, although he denies this.

But the communal pitch suggests the BJP may be less confident than it was a few weeks ago.

Political analyst Neelanjan Sircar says the party may be trying to shore up its supporters in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where Hindu-Muslim polarisation has paid off in the past. This is especially important for revving up its young mobilisers, who might also be affected by issues such as unemployment.

The party also seems nervous about there not being an overwhelming national issue – or wave – like in the past two elections. In 2014, there was massive public anger against a Congress-led government seen as corrupt, and in 2019, national security dominated the campaign after a deadly attack on Indian troops was followed by air strikes against alleged militant targets in Pakistani territory.

“So it may still very much be a vote about how much you trust the leader, or how much you trust the party, but in the absence of a wave, the issues become much, much more local,” Mr Sircar says.

The BJP hopes Mr Modi’s larger-than-life image will get them over the line, but analysts say it could be a problem as well.

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