India’s Election: A ‘Religion Versus Love Fight,’ had Modi Winning Seats but Gandhi Winning Hearts

When Rahul Gandhi, from India’s opposition party, started his Bharat Jodo yatra (Unite India march) in September 2022 against the politics of fear, bigotry, prejudice and inequality gripping the country, little did he know that India’s heart was still seeking to retain the Gandhian values walked over by Narendra Modi’s religious polarization.

By: /
24 June, 2024
India's President, Droupadi Murmu, administers the oath of office and secrecy to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a swearing-in-ceremony on 9 June 2024. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Prime Minister's Office, India.
Irum Khan
By: Irum Khan
Indian journalist

On Sunday, June 9, Narendra Modi took the oath as Prime Minister of India for the third consecutive term, knowing that something within the country had changed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), aiming for 400 seats in Parliament, had to settle for 240, 32 seats below the majority mark of 272, and falling well short of its dream of a Hindu nation.

However, the BJP, with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, were able to collectively obtain 293 seats, securing Modi a third term. The Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, won 99 seats, and with its coalition partner, the INDIA block, took 234 seats. With the BJP losing 63 seats and Congress gaining 47 seats compared to the 2019 elections, the image of Modi as an invincible leader was severely upended. Indeed, Modi struggled to hold on to his assigned seat of Varanasi, winning with just a narrow margin, while Gandhi easily took the two seats he contested with record margins, demonstrating that Modi’s Hindutva ideology has lost its charm.

What next for India?

As Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister again, this time checks and balances are likely to be put-in-place that should slow down India’s drift towards autocracy that had been occurring under his government. Despite the BJP and its allies having the required numbers in parliament to form government yet again, support for Modi’s Hindutva ideology that champions nationalism and establishing Hindu hegemony within India is waning. In fact, the crowds that once chanted his name in hysteria have mellowed, replaced by voices asking what about development and India’s economic future? 

Given the election results, Dr. Reeta Tremblay, Professor Emerita at the Department of Political Science, University of Victoria, noted that a return to liberal democracy in India should be expected. And due to a sizeable opposition the government will be unable to push through major constitutional changes as witnessed during Modi’s second term. Indeed, the Sikh and the Muslim members of the Indo-Canadian diaspora, said Dr. Tremblay, can now “breathe a sigh of relief and hope that the loss of the majority by Modi’s party and its reliance on the secular regional parties (who also rely on Muslim votes) [will] put brakes on the politics of fear and hate.”

Seemingly unaware of a shift in India’s mood, Prime Minister Modi, while on the campaign trail, relied on derogatory remarks about Muslims calling them infiltrators, a children-producing population, and predators eyeing the nation’s wealth, to sway Hindu voters. The bigoted language of the prime minister’s comments was unprecedented in India. However, as Dr. Chinnaiah Jangam, Associate Professor at the Department of History, Carleton University said, Modi’s Muslim bashing could not sway large swathes of the Indian public who were clearly focused on health, education, and employment. The election, he added, was “a monumental blow to Modi’s ego.” On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign focused on uniting a country grappling with social injustice, unemployment, inflation, and division.

India’s election was also perceived by many as a forecast of its democratic status, under threat by the BJP regime. For example, India’s ranking on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index had dropped to 161 out of 180 countries (in 2014, when Modi came to power, India ranked 140).  Meanwhile, many journalists left mainstream media due to increasing censorship and shifted their focus to extensive on-the-ground reporting, which likely helped the opposition as well.

While the BJP denied any tampering with India’s democratic underpinnings, its members voiced their intention while in power to change the constitutional framework time and again. However, with the BJP lacking a clear majority, controversial bills like the Criminal Bill, seen as promoting targeted, biased, and political persecution by the government, the Uniform Civil Code curtailing the rights of the minorities and the tribal population, the exclusionary, faith-based Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) NRC, relegating the status of Muslims, and the controversial Agniveer scheme changing the terms of service of military personnel, and others etc., will receive a setback. Indeed, as Dr. Jangam added, the “BJP’s agenda to rewrite the constitution threatened the very existence of Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis and they en masse voted for the INDIA bloc in North India. Now, the Indian parliament will witness a crippled Modi and opposition in place. Modi can’t move any bill without consensus.”

As mentioned, in his campaign, Gandhi emphasized protecting the Constitution and citizens’ rights. Voters also favoured provincial leaders who prioritized development over Hindutva ideology. Gandhi’s call to open a “Mohabbat ki Dukan” (a shop selling love in the market of hatred) resonated, countering Modi’s promotion of divisive politics. Gandhi also criticized Modi’s ties to the wealthy and exposed mainstream media manipulation by the government. His party also accused the Election Commission of ignoring Modi’s violations of the model conduct code and he strongly opposed the BJP using independent institutions like the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax department, and the Election Commission to defeat the opposition. He further accused the BJP of resorting to tactics of suppressing the opposition by arresting politicians, journalists, and activists, censoring the internetfreezing opposition bank accounts, and allegedly bribing sitting MLA’s to leave their political parties and join the BJP. The last winter session also witnessed the suspension of 141 MPs from parliamentary opposition parties after they demanded the government explain how six intruders were able to enter parliament’s lower house last December, letting off smoke canisters as they protested over India’s poor economic conditions and lack of jobs.

Wither India’s foreign policy?

While there is no doubt that India’s democracy has come under pressure during the past ten years, Western democracies’ geo-political and strategic interests have trumped their concerns over this decline. Instead, containing China has figured prominently in the Indo-Pacific strategies of Canada, the United States, Japan, and others. Because India plays a crucial role in this strategy most have been extremely diplomatic in any criticism of India’s domestic issues, demonstrating that their strategic security relationship with India has and will remain the priority.

Nevertheless, at home, it is likely that India’s aggressive foreign policy, pursued by Modi over the past decade, will come under increasing scrutiny. During the election campaign, Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh emphasized their strong stance on eliminating terrorists at home and abroad. In a new coalition government, Modi and his ministers will undoubtedly need to be more transparent and accountable. Additionally, India’s external intelligence agency, the Research Analysis Wing (RAW), which appears to have expanded its global operations against Sikh and Kashmiri Muslim separatists might face more restrictions and less freedom to operate.

What does the election mean for Canada?

Canada and India’s bilateral relationship has been in recent turmoil from the time Canada accused India of involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Najjar 12 months ago, a Canadian Sikh separatist leader who was involved with the Khalistan movement, which calls for an independent Sikh state. The Indian media’s constant narrative is that Canada is home to Khalistan separatists and this has strained diplomatic ties between the two countries. 

A recent parliamentary report by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians also noted that India had emerged as the second-most significant foreign interference threat to Canada’s democratic institutions and processes after China. The report went on to note that India’s foreign interference efforts in Canada had “extended beyond countering what it perceived as pro-Khalistani efforts in Canada to include interfering in Canadian democratic processes and institutions, including through the targeting of Canadian politicians, ethnic media and Indo-Canadian ethnocultural communities.”

From Dr. Tremblay’s perspective, over the past decade the Modi government has effectively shaped a narrative against Canada and the Liberal party, which has gone unchallenged by other political parties, the media, and the public. This narrative suggests that Canadian politicians cater to the Sikh diaspora for electoral gain and that Canada is a safe haven for terrorists and criminals, with ties between Indo-Canadian gangsters, Sikh separatists, and Pakistan’s intelligence agency. In addition, she noted that the “electoral victory of jailed pro-Khalistan radical preacher Amritpal Singh in Punjab could be a source of worry for the ruling coalition that there might be a militant resurgence and that it might lead to an explosive situation.” To this point, the BJP was unable to win a single seat in Punjab, which continues to face agrarian distress. And now, with the endorsement of a marginal, fringe Khalistani leader, Punjab’s voters “have mainstreamed the separatist issue which had died down since the late 1990s. This might have serious implications for Canada-India diplomatic relations.”

Canada also has a diverse Indian diaspora, including Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. The Hindu community largely supports Mr. Modi, with little traction for Rahul Gandhi. In addition, Dr. Tremblay noted that the Sikh diaspora is also disappointed with Gandhi over his silence on Canada’s allegations of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing. “Despite criticizing Modi’s undermining of multicultural democracy, Gandhi,” she noted, “has not addressed these allegations, reflecting India’s consensus on foreign policy, territorial integrity, and fighting terrorism.”

Nevertheless, economic relations between the two countries remain strong and in 2023, total Canadian exports to India were valued at $5.1 billion and imports at $7.5 billion CAD. Export wise, Saskatchewan was responsible for 26 percent with the majority tied directly to agri-food exports. India is also the largest source country for international students coming to Canada to study. In addition, Dr. Tremblay noted that “Canadian pension funds, amounting to some $32 billion, remain invested in India.”

In the years ahead, Gandhi will certainly need to reach out to the Indian diaspora in Canada. Meanwhile, the challenges within India are immense. Modi’s third term has already begun with reports of two Muslim men being beaten to death by vigilantes, protests against the allotment of a government residence to a Muslim woman due to her religious identity, and charges against a former professor in Kashmir, Dr. Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, and Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly provocative speeches delivered at a 2010 conference in Delhi.

Will Rahul Gandhi succeed in countering this authoritarianism with his deep-rooted Gandhian ideology? We shall see, but as Dr. Jangam noted the election outcome marked “an interesting change” in India’s day-to-day political life. As for Canada-India diplomatic relations, there’s little doubt that moving forward, no matter who is in power in Canada or India, that the Khalistan matter will remain the core issue clouding relations between the two countries.

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