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India is about to hold the world’s biggest election: 970 million voters will cast their ballots over seven phases of voting from April 19 to early June, lasting for six weeks. As the world’s largest democracy, India’s election outcomes have significant implications for its economy, democracy, and global position. Most pundits forecast the current incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral victory but also highlight some controversies and key points which merit consideration.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally inaugurated a Hindu temple at the site of a torn-down historic mosque in Ayodhya. The temple, believed to be the birthplace of the divine Hindu warrior-king Rama, was a long-standing promise made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

This move aimed to consolidate Modi’s Hindu voting base and celebrate India’s glorious Hindu past. The inauguration sparked controversy and highlighted fault lines between India’s Hindu majority and its Muslim minority.

On August 5, 2019, Modi’s government abrogated Articles 373 and 35A of its own Constitution, which gave autonomy to the disputed region of Indian Occupied Kashmir and amalgamated it into Indian Territory. The move has isolated Kashmir but opened the floodgates for judicial cases challenging the illegal order.

Another major challenge is heightened tensions and hate crimes because of the Indian minorities being targeted with impunity. India is witnessing a disturbing rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence.

Recently, international students offering Ramadan prayers (Tarawih) at a Gujarat university hostel were attacked by radical Hindu nationalists. This incident is just one example of the dangers faced by minorities in India. The attackers showed no restraint, leaving their victims traumatised. This rise in intolerance and hate crimes is a major cause for concern, threatening the country’s social fabric. Minority rights are increasingly under attack, with discriminatory laws and policies popping up like weeds.

The government promulgated the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which allows non-Muslim religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship. The BJP argues that the CAA protects religious minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists from persecution. Critics contend that it deliberately excludes Muslim minorities and sets religious criteria for citizenship.

National Register of Citizens (NRC) allows the government to identify and expel undocumented Indian residents. Many poor residents lack proper documentation, especially women who are often excluded from property and inheritance documents. Critics fear that undocumented Indian Muslims could become stateless due to the NRC and then be blocked from citizenship by the CAA.

The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a coalition of over two dozen opposition parties, initially aimed to pose a formidable challenge to the BJP has been weakened due to BJP strong-arm tactics.

Opposition leaders have been targeted with arrests, investigations, and raids on their homes and offices. New Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was imprisoned by the Enforcement Directorate on trumped up charges related to liquor licenses.

The Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, has also faced hurdles. Its bank accounts were frozen over a tax dispute, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi received a suspended sentence on defamation charges. Rahul had narrated a joke targeting Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha.

Despite India’s youth bulge, many young Indians remain unemployed due to a job market that prioritises highly skilled labour.

Indian citizens face a major challenge because of the widening gap between the haves and have nots.

A recent report by the World Inequality Lab discloses a harsh reality – India’s wealth gap is wider than ever. The top 1%, the elite club, now gobbles up a staggering 40.1% of the nation’s wealth. That’s even higher than countries known for inequality like South Africa, Brazil, and even the United States!

This elite group lives in opulence, while the bottom 50% struggles with a shrinking share of just 13%. Billionaires like Mukesh Ambani live like kings, while millions struggle to put food on the table. Critics blame economic policies that favour the wealthy for this ever-widening chasm. Some propose a ‘super tax’ on the richest to fund programs for the poor.

The continuous demonstrations and road blockades initiated by farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana continues to rock the capital and the corridors of power.

A recent exposé of India’s covert operations abroad, resulting in killings, has sparked international outrage. India’s defence minister himself confirmed these operations during a televised interview, igniting tensions by declaring, “If they flee to Pakistan, we will enter Pakistan to eliminate them,” referring to suspected terrorists.

Pakistan swiftly denounced Singh’s remarks as “provocative.” Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch emphasized Pakistan’s commitment to sovereignty and demanded international action. She stated, “India’s assertion of its preparedness to extra-judicially execute more civilians constitutes a clear admission of culpability.”

An investigative report published by British daily The Guardian exposed the alleged killing of at least 20 individuals in Pakistan since 2020, linked to RAW. These claims, supported by intelligence officials and Pakistani investigators, depict a widespread network of extrajudicial killings.

According to Indian intelligence officers cited by the The Guardian, the shift to targeting dissidents abroad followed the Pulwama attack in 2019. India drew inspiration from agencies like Mossad and KGB, known for their involvement in extrajudicial killings. The brutal assassination of Turkish journalist Jamal Khashoggi also influenced India’s approach.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) characterises these actions as a “global phenomenon” that violates international law and the United Nations Charter.

Such actions further tarnish India’s international reputation and heighten tensions within the country. These accusations come at a terrible time, when India is already facing global scrutiny over its treatment of minorities and economic inequalities.

There are also serious allegations of Modi misusing the media and taking over one of the few remaining independent television stations through a dubious billionaire ally. He has also created an official panel empowered to take down social media posts critical of the government.

A BBC documentary that exposed Modi’s link to the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat was dismissed by the BJP government as ‘propaganda and anti-India garbage’ and accused the BBC of ‘harbouring colonial mindset.’ The BJP government invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary and any online links to it in India. It is disturbing that a beleaguered *BBC’*s offices in Mumbai and New Delhi were raided by the Indian tax department. The brave students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) tried to screen the documentary; however, the University authorities switched off the electricity to the whole campus.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in India casts a long shadow over the country’s future. It presents a formidable challenge to India’s democratic ideals and its aspirations to be a global leader. While the current leadership likely reflects the national mood, upcoming elections may not significantly alter the trajectory of Hindu nationalism. Intolerance, once unleashed, is notoriously difficult to rein in.

India’s journey from its newly independent status in 1947 to a nation aspiring for a “Ram Rajya” – a mythical ideal kingdom governed by Lord Rama, a revered Hindu deity associated with righteous rule – is indeed intricate. The concept of Ram Rajya embodies ideals of peace, prosperity, and justice, but the current political climate raises critical questions about its interpretation and practical implementation.

The central query remains: can India achieve a version of Ram Rajya that upholds the secular principles enshrined in its constitution and ensures equal rights for all its citizens? Unfortunately, this aspiration appears highly unlikely under a nationalistic government that promotes a single religion. Some proponents of Hindu nationalism advocate for an “Akhand Bharat” (Undivided India), a concept that loosely references the geographical boundaries described in the Mahabharata epic.

India’s pursuit of a Ram Rajya that aligns with secular principles and ensures equal rights for all citizens faces significant challenges. Balancing tradition, faith, and constitutional values remains an ongoing endeavour, and the path forward requires thoughtful dialogue and inclusive governance.

If India aspires to be recognised as the world’s largest democracy, it must learn from its past and strive for a state that is all-encompassing and respects the diversity of its people and shed the influences of Hindutva which dictates that India is an exclusive state for Hindus aiming to establish Hindu supremacy.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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