Municipal elections in Delhi later this month have become politically significant for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party at a time when its political opponents and critics are gradually resigning themselves to maybe as much as a decade of increasing Hindu nationalism in India’s social and political life.
The BJP is launching an intense vote-winning campaign to ensure it defeats the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that embarrassed it by winning a crushing victory in Delhi state polls just after the BJP had won the 2014 zeral election.
Following the BJP’s landslide state assembly win in Uttar Pradesh (UP) last month, this is the next step for Modi and his strong Hindu nationalist henchman, Amit Shah, in their drive gradually to dominate the Indian political scene by the 2019 general election.
As has been seen since the UP victory, Hinduization can involve varying degrees of surges in extreme nationalist authoritarian policies. So far, these have included bans on sacred cow slaughter and police crackdowns both on slaughterhouses (mostly run by Muslims), and on the freedom for young men and women to socialize in public – backed sometimes by genuine Hindu nationalist hardliners, but also by vigilante enforcement gangs that cause communal unrest and extort bribes from those they attack.
More widely, these developments stem from the legacy of the fading Gandhi dynasty-dominated Congress Party that in 2014 bequeathed, after 10 years in power, a country urgently needing clean, efficient and development-oriented government.
As the Modi years unfold – he is now into the second half of his five-year term in office – it is clear that the price that India will have to pay for stronger government is growing and often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which horrifies India’s liberals and strikes fear among Muslims and some other minorities, notably Christians.
The five-yearly elections to the notoriously corrupt Delhi Municipal Corporation are rarely significant beyond the city. The BJP is currently in power, so it is not chasing a new victory, but it is determined to defeat its main competitor, the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal, who is Delhi’s chief minister and whose small party grew out of an earlier anti-corruption movement.
Modi’s government has hounded the Kejriwal state administration since 2014, frequently undermining and disrupting its limited constitutional authority in Delhi’s multi-tiered government structure. The municipal election on April 23 will be a test of Modi’s and Shah’s ability to use the BJP’s organizational and financial clout to swing poor voters back from the AAP that they supported in 2014.
The BJP’s triumphant and unexpected appointment on March 19 of Adityanath, a long-standing MP and Hindu monk who always dresses in saffron priest’s robes, as the UP’s chief minister indicated that Modi is apparently content to give way sometimes to Hindu hardliners providing the development of a strong India remains his government’s top priority.
That balance seemed to have been upset in Adityanath’s early days, when enforcement of an existing law (which varies in different states) banning cow slaughter led to raids on slaughterhouses and also on sales of buffalo beef that is legitimately and widely eaten and exported. Gangs of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) became vigilante enforcers, backed by frequently vicious policing. There were indiscriminate raids and attacks on shops selling lamb and on kebab restaurants – at least one Kentucky Fried Chicken shop had to close in Delhi’s UP satellite city of Noida.
The chief minister of Gujarat on Twitter
At the same time, the government clamped down on hordes of young men who had been pestering women on the streets to such an extent that many young women did not dare go out in the evenings. This action was necessary and had not been carried out by the previous state government but, again, it was done to excess by “anti-Romeo” squads with police harassing couples and even arresting single men who were doing no harm.
Slowly, the situation calmed down. Adityanath warned that excesses would not be allowed and that “only those who do not believe in the law ought to be worried.” Harsh and sometimes violent threats and action have spread.