An Is­lam­o­pho­bic ex­trem­ist has won the big­gest elec­tion this year

The Guardian - - OPINION -

The world breathed a sigh of re­lief last week as the Is­lam­o­phobe pop­ulist Geert Wilders failed to be­come the head of the big­gest party in Hol­land. The respite from elected big­otry did not last long. On Sun­day an even more stri­dently anti-Mus­lim ex­trem­ist took power in the big­gest elec­tion of this year. Ut­tar Pradesh, with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 200 mil­lion, is not an in­de­pen­dent na­tion. It is In­dia’s big­gest and most im­por­tant state. UP, as it is known, by it­self would be the world’s fourth big­gest democ­racy – be­hind the rest of In­dia, the United States, and In­done­sia. In a stun­ning vic­tory, the rul­ing Bharatiya Janata party swept the state elec­tions, win­ning, along with its al­lies, 80% of the seats. Elec­tions here are the most sig­nif­i­cant in In­dia. UP sends 80 MPs to In­dia’s na­tional par­lia­ment of 545 seats. Re­gard­less of party, they pay care­ful at­ten­tion to the mood of UP’s elec­torate. If the na­tion’s gov­ern­ing par­ties do well in UP, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans feel they ought to stay in line. If op­po­si­tion par­ties do well in UP, then grid­lock rules in Delhi.

The man cho­sen by the In­dian prime min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi, to lead UP, home of Hin­duism’s holy Ganges river and the Moghul tomb of Taj Ma­hal, is a fel­low Hindu na­tion­al­ist, Yogi Adityanath. Mr Adityanath is a Hindu priest who, while elected five times from his tem­ple’s town, has been shown re­peat­edly to be con­temp­tu­ous of demo­cratic norms. He has been ac­cused of at­tempted mur­der, crim­i­nal in­tim­i­da­tion and ri­ot­ing. He says young Mus­lim men had launched a “love jihad” to en­trap and con­vert Hindu women. Mother Teresa, he claimed, wanted to Chris­tianise In­dia. He backs a Don­ald Trump­style travel ban to stop “ter­ror­ists” com­ing to In­dia. On the cam­paign trail, Mr Adityanath warned: “If [Mus­lims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Mus­lim men”. This can­not be dis­missed as mere rhetoric. The ar­gu­ment that once in power the BJP would be­come more rea­son­able does not wash. There’s lit­tle sign In­dia’s con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions would en­able the BJP to con­tinue in power while the dy­nam­ics of its wider move­ment are kept in check. Mr Adityanath, now a pow­er­ful fig­ure, is sig­nalling that in In­dia mi­nori­ties ex­ist merely on the good­will of the ma­jor­ity. Step out of line and there will be blood. For some of In­dia’s 140 mil­lion Mus­lims the threat is enough to see them de­bate with­draw­ing from pub­lic life to avoid fur­ther po­lar­i­sa­tion.

Mr Modi’s BJP is full of reli­gious zealots. He him­self claimed plas­tic sur­geons in an­cient In­dia grafted an ele­phant head on to a hu­man thou­sands of years ago. The BJP’s skill is pro­duc­ing a cir­cus to di­vert at­ten­tion from how poorly the coun­try is do­ing. This has been suc­cess­ful: vot­ers over­whelm­ingly en­dorsed Mr Modi’s de­ci­sion last Novem­ber to can­cel high-value ban­knotes – the so-called de­mon­eti­sa­tion of 86% of all cur­rency – which they were told was a key anti-cor­rup­tion re­form.

The pub­lic, and es­pe­cially the poor, ap­pear to put up with the chaos be­cause they wrongly be­lieve the rich suf­fered more. They did not be­cause the wealthy long ago con­verted ill-got­ten cash into houses, busi­nesses and jew­ellery. The tur­moil cost the econ­omy, ex­perts say, an es­ti­mated £14bn. Money that might have been bet­ter spent in UP pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity to half of house­holds that don’t have it, or tack­ling the high­est in­fant mor­tal­ity rate in In­dia. The coun­try in­stead is told that Hin­dus must have a tem­ple on the site of Mus­lim mosque demolished by a BJP-led mob in 1992 be­cause it was said to be the birth­place of a de­ity. This is a na­tion that once was said to suceed in spite of the gods. Now it is go­ing back­wards be­cause of them.

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