The Battle for India’s Soul

The Election Will Determine What Comes After Secularism

Modi waves to supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, April 2019 Adnan Abidi / REUTERS

On May 19, voting will end in the last phase of India’s mammoth general election. Over the five and a half weeks of the campaign, some 600 million voters will have trekked to the polls to select the 543 members of India’s next parliament. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term in office. A motley crew of opposition parties—including the Indian National Congress, the once-dominant political force in post-independence India, and a bevy of regional players—hopes to topple it.

The stakes are high. The author-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor called the election “a battle for India’s soul,” and the political scientist and social activist Yogendra Yadav has argued that the “very idea of India is under challenge.” In the minds of many observers, this election will determine whether India has a future as a secular, pluralist republic true to its founders’ belief that its unity is strengthened by its immense diversity.

The campaign has seen its fair share of lows. On multiple occasions, India’s election commission has temporarily banned several top political leaders from campaigning over their incendiary, religiously divisive taunts. In particular, the BJP—an avowedly pro-Hindu nationalist party—has peddled inflammatory rhetoric about India’s Muslims, who make up nearly 15 percent of India’s 1.3 billion residents. On the first day of voting, BJP party president Amit Shah pledged that his party, if reelected, would “remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha [sic], Hindus and Sikhs.”

The BJP chief was referring to the National Register of Citizens, a record recently established in the border state of Assam to distinguish between genuine citizens of India and undocumented Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Inaugurated by the current BJP state government after a decades-long political debate, the NRC excludes more than four million people from its draft list of citizens, suggesting that mass deportation could be in order. Shah promised that a second-term BJP government in New Delhi would implement an

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