Does Modi’s Anti-Muslim ‘Hate Speech’ Reflect Nervousness?

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Does Modi’s Anti-Muslim ‘Hate Speech’ Reflect Nervousness?

At an election rally, he said that the opposition would redistribute wealth among “infiltrators” and “those who have many children,” an allusion to Muslims.

Does Modi’s Anti-Muslim ‘Hate Speech’ Reflect Nervousness?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bharatiya Janata Party members at a BJP election rally in Bhaswara, India, April 21, 2024.

Credit: X/Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered one of his most controversial and divisive speeches on April 21, while addressing an election campaign in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. He referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who have a large number of children,” and claimed that the opposition’s victory would mean Hindus’ wealth going into Muslims’ hands.

Muslims are India’s largest minority group, making up 14.2 percent of the country’s population, according to the census of 2011. Hindus form 79.8 percent of the population.

While Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does have a reputation for being a divisive or polarizing figure, his April 21 speech went a little too far even by his standards, according to many political observers.

“When they [Congress] were in power, they said that Muslims have the first rights to the wealth of the nation. This means they will distribute the wealth among those who have more children. They will distribute those among infiltrators. Should your hard-earned wealth be given to infiltrators? Do you approve it?” Modi asked the audience.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who headed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government between 2004 and 2019, never made any such remark, nor has the Congress, India’s main opposition party, promised anything like that. Its manifesto speaks of growing wealth inequality and social justice.

However, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a recent speech said that if his party was voted to power, the government would conduct a survey to enumerate the strength and assess the socioeconomic status of the backward sections of society, based on which proportionate distribution of the nation’s wealth, including jobs and welfare schemes, would be carried out.

Gandhi mentioned the word “minority” as one category among the less empowered sections, along with tribal communities and low Hindu castes.

But Modi alleged at the April 21 rally that the Congress’ election manifesto says that “they will calculate the gold held by our mothers and sisters, gather information on it, and distribute them among Muslims, who PM Manmohan Singh said have the first right to India’s wealth.”

Pitching his verbal offensive higher, Modi added, “Brothers and sisters, this kind of thinking influenced by Urban Naxals will not spare the mangal sutra [the gold chain that the groom ties around the neck of the bride in a Hindu wedding] of our mothers and sisters.”

Urban Naxal is BJP parlance to refer to civil and human rights activists as ultra-Left Maoists. The clubbing of the two issues has triggered many speculations.

The timing of the comments – in the immediate aftermath of the first phase polling in 102 of India’s 543 constituencies in the lower house of parliament – has also generated curiosity. Before the first phase, Modi’s campaign was focused more on development. He had even advised his ministers to “stick to facts and speak carefully” during the electoral campaign.

But Modi himself gave up on facts. Blaming Muslims for a higher population growth rate has been an old favorite conspiracy theory of India’s Hindu nationalists to spread anxiety in Hindu society, even though it is a disputed idea. Not only has the Muslim growth rate steadily declined, but different growth rates among Hindus can be observed from region to region – the north-south divide in particular.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, political affairs editor at the independent news portal The Wire, said Modi has not been so rabid in the past 20 years.

“During his first term as the Gujarat chief minister (2001-02), he used to openly call Muslims as ‘Pakistanis,’ as people who produce 25 children, and so on. From his second term (2002-07), he relegated the responsibility of the more rabid speeches to his closest confidante Minister Amit Shah [who has been India’s home minister since 2019] while he himself spoke more on development and referred to Muslims in suggestive ways. Now, he is back to his last resort by being as rabid as he can,” he told The Diplomat.

While many media outlets pointed out how the prime minister himself was distorting facts, Modi has kept up his offensive on the twin issues – Muslims and redistribution of wealth.

At a rally in Aligarh in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – home to India’s largest number of Muslims – he skipped any direct reference to Muslims but continued with the allegation that the Congress was “looking to survey earnings and wealth of people, including their vehicles, property, and houses to redistribute it in line with a communist ideology that INDIA wanted to implement in the country.” Congress is part of the opposition bloc named the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

At another rally in Rajasthan on April 23, Modi repeated that “Manmohan Singh in his speech had said that Muslims have the first right to the country’s resources.” He also accused the opposition, especially Congress, of trying to deprive the tribal groups and Hindu lower castes (Scheduled Caste or SC and Other Backward Classes or OBCs) by giving their constitutionally entitled benefits to Muslims.

So, what prompted Modi to switch campaign gear?

Lacking Confidence? 

Multiple political observers have pointed out that this is not a “wave election;” neither is there any palpable Modi wave (as there was in 2014 and 2019) nor is there any hint of an anti-incumbency wave.

According to a senior editor at the national bureau of one of India’s leading dailies, the BJP has reasons to feel nervous, even if a little, as the election looks closer than the BJP would like people to believe.

“The elections are more localized, with local issues finding prominence in the campaign and public discourse, and people are asking for the performance of their MPs concerned. This leaves the BJP in doubt,” said the editor, who did not want to be named.

Journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of several books on Hindu nationalism, including “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times,” does not see Modi’s speech as an aberration. There has always been “a subliminal communal angle” to his actions and words, he said.

“Modi always has two cards – development and communal division – in his hand. It depends on the situation which one would be his primary card. The communal one becomes the primary card whenever he is anxious or nervous,” Mukhopadhyay told The Diplomat.

“I am not saying that he is losing the election, but his speech reflects his anxiety, possibly triggered by relatively lower voter turnout in the first phase,” he elaborated.

According to Mukhopadhyay, Modi’s clubbing of the issue of the communal card with the Congress social justice program reflects a change in Modi’s attitude toward Gandhi.

“Earlier, they used to ridicule Gandhi. Now, he is attacking Gandhi and his policies. It shows how they know the ridiculing of Rahul Gandhi does not have the same currency as before, as Gandhi is being seen as more serious and his propositions are making sense to many. This could be another trigger of the anxiety,” Mukhopadhyay said.

According to Mahaprashasta, Modi has “challenged the opposition’s agenda against inequality with a communal dog whistle.”

He pointed out that Modi addressed this speech at a constituency dominated by tribal people, among whom the jal-jangal-jameen (water-forest-land) question resonates, serving as a roadblock to the Hindu nationalist ideology. The BJP is trying to deflect the jal-jangal-jameen question with an anti-Muslim pitch, he feels.

“Almost all opposition parties are talking about an equitable distribution of wealth, whereas the Modi regime is typified as one where the concentration of wealth intensified. Modi’s divisive speech is aimed at dividing the potential beneficiaries of the opposition’s social justice programs,” observed Mahaprashasta.

He pointed out that apart from the lower voter turnout even among BJP voters, the fact that the opposition’s social justice programs have gained some currency has alarmed the BJP. Besides, people in northern India have also started talking about “excesses” committed by the BJP-ruled governments on opposition parties using law enforcement agencies.

“Modi seems to hope that such a strongly divisive and polarizing speech will divert attention from the socioeconomic justice issues,” Mahaprashasta says.

However, Rahul Verma, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research (CPR), said that he would not describe Modi’s speeches as a sign of nervousness in the BJP camp.

“What might be happening is that there was no emotive appeal in the election campaign thus far. The PM tried to bring in this Hindu-Muslim equation, which is part of the BJP’s mobilizational strategy, to charge up its support base,” Verma said.

He thinks the Congress’ campaign saying that the BJP is aiming for more than 400 seats to be able to change the Constitution and the status of caste-based reservation could be another issue Modi was responding to. Caste, which divides Hindu society, is a sensitive political issue.

“The Congress tried to bring caste into the electoral discourse. Now, the PM is trying to galvanize the Hindu core of his support base by creating this divide between Hindus and Muslims and using the language of redistribution. It’s basically a move against the opposition campaign on why the BJP has given a clarion call for more than 400 seats,” said Verma.

Ajay Gudavarthy, a political scientist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, does not think such statements will prove to be game changers, as Hindu-Muslim polarization has been on the wane for some time now.

He suspects Modi’s reference to the mangal sutra and attempts to highlight how for women possessing gold is not just about wealth but also honor and dignity could be a way to appeal to and spread anxiety among women voters, who are turning up in greater numbers than their male counterparts.

“During the Delhi state elections, BJP MPs went to the extent of saying that Hindu women would be raped if the opposition wins. BJP is now in the habit of raking up Hindu anxieties through such statements. Such statements may help consolidate their core but will not add new voters,” Gudavarthy told The Diplomat.