A month before the voters punched their preference in the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) during the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, the world was taken aback by the manifest brutality of the sudden attack by Hamas militia on Israel. More than 1,200 people were killed and 200-odd Israelis were kidnapped.

This gory incident was used by right-wing trolls and Islamophobes to mobilise public opinion all over the world to show how Hamas—the Islamic radicals—could not be reasoned with and if left alone could kill innocent people and rape women. The videos were repackaged by spin doctors in India during the assembly elections, where the Congress party was supposed to do well—at least return to power in two of the three states. Did this strategy work?

Nearly all the pollsters were proved wrong. A newspaper owner/editor who routinely conducted these polls with the help of his network of correspondents and who seldom went wrong in his assessment was so devastated by the final result that he gave up any kind of psephology after the MP debacle. What happened?

According to a home ministry official, the key reason was that the BJP and RSS campaigners managed to convince the Hindu majority that their women and children would not be safe if the Congress returned to power, as they would give space to Muslims in politics and society. “Your women will be kidnapped and raped like it happened in Israel by Hamas fighters.”

Visibly, there was a co-option of the violent imagery that was beamed on all kinds of YouTube channels that showed Israeli women allegedly being brutalised. Later it was found to be exaggerated and untrue. “Please do not take the power of such imagery lightly. It can swing elections within no time. Remember Pulwama? The entire election narrative changed thereafter,” said this official.

The dissemination of news emanating from Israel and Gaza after the October 7 violence has been facilitated by an ecosystem in India that panders to hate for Muslims. Though in our country this atavism may have been ignited in 1947 by the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, the politics of hate dominate elections and everyday discourse. As the website Diplomat wrote after the October 7, 2023, incident: “The intertwining of domestic politics with larger global issues has given fresh voice to the stoking of anti-Muslim hate as narratives borrowed from a foreign conflict are used to justify the persecution of Muslims in India.”

Modi’s Tactics: From Mangalsutra to Minority Politics

The electoral success that the BJP has achieved is not lost on its leadership. This is the reason that the BJP does not even attempt to talk about its government’s achievements in foreign policy or infrastructure development and is more comfortable burnishing its credentials as a protector of the Hindu faith. Helped by an indifferent Election Commission, PM Narendra Modi, during the middle of the election campaign, claimed that if the Congress is voted to power, it would snatch away the mangalsutra – a necklace Hindu women wear after marriage – from Hindu women and give it to Muslims. He also called the Congress manifesto divisive and pandering to Muslims.

A quick reading of the manifesto revealed that the criticism of it being pro-Muslim was misplaced, as there was no suggestion of any communal spin. More recently, in an interview with a pro-government channel, PM Modi said that Muslims should introspect and understand the harm their attempts to be in politics and their endeavours to change governments are doing to the next generation. It was a vague formulation by any imagination, but it comes naturally to those who have a method of perceiving minorities as a threat to the stability of society. His advice sounded more like a threat, suggesting that they stay away from playing an active role in politics.

So, if some analysts thought that the PM’s sudden shift to communalise the elections was an act of desperation, they should think again. As someone in his PR team pointed out, he had everything listed and worked out down to the last detail of what he would say. The mention of the mangalsutra was meant to show how the return of the Congress could destroy not just the sanctity of married life but also how gold could be snatched from them and handed over to Muslims. This was also a subtle criticism of what Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been talking about: a caste survey and an audit of the wealthy, which has outraged the vocal middle class.

The BJP perceives itself to be representing the upper-caste middle class, which could be impacted by Rahul’s proposals. What’s apparent is that the BJP wants to show that the caste survey and audit of inequality is a ploy to pass on wealth to the marginalised, but ostensibly to the Muslims. This is an allegation that needed some clever footwork, but the moot point is: is this strategy working on the ground?

It is very difficult to ascertain whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rabid anti-minorityism is providing his party with adequate dividends in the three rounds of polling that we have witnessed. What is apparent to everyone is that Modi’s supporters are rallying around him, but what about the fence-sitters and those who change loyalty every season?

The BJP is tapping into Indians’ fascination for Israel and how it manages to stand up to hostile Muslim neighbours. What is ignored while drawing this easy conclusion is the support that Israel gets from the United States and Europe. Is it any surprise that India, which has backed Israel after this episode, is perhaps one of the few countries in the world where there have been no protests against the atrocities heaped by Israelis on Palestinians? This is despite the fact that Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, out of which 13,000 are children. As the BJP uses the gruesome happenings in Israel and Gaza to chisel its narrative against Muslims and consolidate its Hindu support in the elections, what has become a casualty is our time-tested pro-Palestinian and just foreign policy.

SANJAY KAPOOR is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.

ElectionIndiaNarendra ModiPolitics

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Is Hamas attack on Israel helping the BJP on the ground?