The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh recently had an important election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on the campaign trail in order to get the BJP elected as the next government of the country’s most populous state. Evidently the BJP’s electoral strategy and message was spot on as the PM’s party 312 seats out of 403. The scale of the party’s victory is best illustrated by comparing the results to the last UP election in 2012. In 2012 the BJP won only 47 seats and garnered 15%. However in the latest election they were the recipient of a 24.7% swing, and thus were swept into power with a significantly higher number of seats than the 202 majority required to single-handedly govern. The results of this will be a the stoking of ethno-religious tensions and the radicalisation of discourse as a consequence.
There are number of things that need to be said about the UP election and I shall begin with the latest news out of the state. The BJP has announced that Yogi Adityanath will be the next Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. This is bad news for a number of reasons. Firstly to called Adityanath a Hindu-hardliner is a huge understatement. He has said that anyone who doesn’t follow yoga as a set of spiritual practices should leave the country, which is an unsubtle way of advocating for the deportation of non-Hindus.
Further, according to the BBC, Adityanath has also compared Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Saeed. For those unfamiliar with Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan is not only one of the most successful Indian actors ever, he’s a personal model of how India be a society in which people of different religions could peacefully coexist. Khan is a Muslim but has previously said that his wife’s Hindu faith is also important to him and that in his house the Qur’an has a place next to statues of Hindu deities.
On the other hand, Hafiz Saeed is the co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the largest active terrorist organisations in South East Asia. Although many will be unfamiliar with this group, you may be familiar with some of their work including a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In the mind of Yogi Adityanath, Khan and Saeed are two sides of the same coin because they both identify as Muslim.
Adityanath’s policy suggestions are also hideous. He has praised Donald Trump for attempting to introduce a Muslim travel ban and is uncompromising when it comes to the state acting to protect Hindu traditions. He has also said that he wants laws to be introduced protecting cows from being killed, in accordance with Hindu tradition, and wishes for the state to enact laws banning the consumption of beef. This is where he views become more sinister.
It is not controversial that he is personally opposed to the consumption of beef because he is Hindu, but he and others in the BJP are now seeking to impose their religious views on others through the machinery of the government. This must be resisted so that India can be preserved as a secular democracy. It’s worth mentioning that UP is also around 20% Muslim, which in a state of around 200 million people means that 40 million people have no philosophical or religious objection to eating beef. For Adityanath this isn’t a theoretical concept. He will be leading a state that contains a huge number of people that don’t agree with him, but he will seek to impose his religious views on them. This cannot be allowed to go unnoticed.
The other aspect of the UP election that should be mentioned is how the electoral system skewed the result. Because of the country’s history under British rule, Indian elections are under the same first-past-the-post system as British general elections. Given some of the radical policies of the BJP, and their tendency to implement these policies in flagrant disregard of the consequences for religious minorities, there are people whose lives will be made significantly worse because this system has produced unrepresentative governments.
The election in UP is a clear example of why this system should be changed into a more proportional model. The BJP won 312 out of 403 seats, which is not only a majority, it’s a landslide majority. In UP if the BJP had a contentious vote where 100 MPs didn’t vote for the government’s proposal, it would still pass. However this overwhelming majority- 77.4% of seats if my maths is correct- was won on 39.7% of the vote. The BJP’s seat percentage is nearly double their vote share.
This example is stark because under a different system not only would Yogi Adityanath not be the next Chief Minister, the BJP wouldn’t be in a position to form a majority government. They would have had to rely on other parties to govern, which would have been difficult as the others support secular government and are hugely opposed to the BJP’s style of governing.
India is going through a moment in its history where it is embracing more radically right-wing form of Hindu nationalism. The Uttar Pradesh election has clearly illustrated this trend, and the nomination of Yogi Adityanath should leave people in doubt. The BJP have nominated an extremist as the next UP Chief Minister. Obviously I think that they should nominate someone else but I wouldn’t hold out much hope on that front.
If India is going to remain a secular democracy then it needs to reject this pernicious form of nationalism and embrace religious toleration. Hindu extremists have been emboldened by the BJP’s success, and resisting this oppressive force will be based on a coherent alternative. I believe this should be rooted in persuading people of the evils of religion and the importance of social cooperation but obviously this is not a message that will wash in most of India.
Opposition political parties need to get organised to resist Modi’s party because I don’t think most Indians want their country to turn into an authoritarian state that actively persecutes religious minorities. An important first step is electoral reform but creating an education system that promotes critical thinking, particularly in relation to religion, will go a long way to inoculating the country from religious extremism.