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Reflecting on the Rights Implications of India's Bharatiya Janata Party Win

Over half a billion people voted in India’s general election in April and May 2014. For many the result was no surprise; having won 282 of 543 seats, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now holds power in the world’s largest democracy. The election, which was marked by a surge in women voters, and young women in particular, was attributed to women’s concerns about education, employment opportunities, and the rising tide of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). Unlike past elections, all major national parties included discussions about the increasing VAWG and the persistent gender disparities in their manifestos.

The Indian National Congress, which led the alliance that ruled India for the past ten years, suffered its worst defeat in history, receiving less than 20% of the popular vote. Despite holding itself up as the champion of secularism, Congress was unable to overcome widespread public perception of the party as being ineffective in controlling inflation and rebooting a stagnant economy, and failing to adequately address corruption, terrorism, and crimes against women.

The coming to power of the BJP reflects not only a rejection of Congress, but also the successful overhauling of now PM Narendra Modi’s image. Modi was recast from the man who presided over the Gujarat Genocide to the architect of the “Gujarat Model”, symbolizing rapid economic development with clean and efficient governance; and from a rabid fundamentalist to a mature, inclusive national leader. This recasting was key since Modi never managed to shake off the stigma of being in charge of Gujarat State in 2002, when some 2,000 Muslims were systematically slaughtered and countless others tortured, raped, maimed, and over 100,000 homes seriously damaged or destroyed. This history, and the lack of accountability that followed, has raised concerns about what the new government will mean for the nation, and particularly for women as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

According to feminist writer and activist Vasanth Kannabiran, “There was a clear indication that the wind was blowing that way . . . we have no secular illusions.” Veteran women’s rights activist Abha Bhaiya felt that “the total lack of alliances within so-called secular parties was going to clear the ‎way for BJP. As such, the tremendous finances pumped into the election campaign . . . was well orchestrated.” Yet she pragmatically concedes that "Since this is a democratic election . . . the verdict of the voters has to be accepted, with all my apprehension.” ‎ For her, the elections marked a defeat of various movements. “We have not been able to build our constituency. We know the reasons for this and this ‎moment in history must be used by us to do serious reflection.” At the same time, she cautions against despair: “Let’s not forget within the screams and high-pitched celebrations of victory for the BJP that it is only 31-35 % of the voting population that has voted for the BJP and its allies.” ‎

Kannabiran and other rights activists are also deeply concerned by Modi’s track record stating that “the long term impact on minority rights and communal relations will have to be watched.” Historical positions on communal relations or women’s rights may give little comfort, but Kannabiran hopes that, “after his huge victory, he may take care to protect his image internationally at least… That is a hope. On the range of disgusting remarks made in public by politicians, he has not yet reacted and I am not sure whether he will act.” [1, 2, 3] Kannabiran references a slew of comments from politicians excusing or minimizing the issue of rape, a subject increasingly in the spotlight since the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 that made international headlines.

In addition, many rights activists are alarmed by trends relating to freedom of expression and association. As Kannabiran reflects, “One had a degree of freedom of speech earlier, but we had riots and massacres in the Congress regime, and doublespeak on communal tensions. Now the Intelligence Bureau has submitted a report (arguing) that foreign-funded NGOs are obstructing development.”

Maya Ganesh with international information rights and advocacy organization Tactical Tech, notes that impacts are already being felt.[1] “Everything we feared has happened so soon. Industry supported Modi and is trying to push their skewed notion of 'development' (…) More than ten people have been arrested for saying ‘defamatory’ things online about Narendra Modi. When the last government was challenged it was 'freedom of speech', now it is called 'defamation'.” [3]

“The future does not bode well for overall development or rights-related issues”, notes an activist with a sexuality rights organization, as “the current government is likely to focus on whetting the middle class' aspirations at the expense of all else.” Bhaiya agrees saying that “[t]he deadly combination of fundamentalists and the capitalists is something we are all ‎dreading. The destruction and sale of natural resources is inevitable. We are in ‎for a dark period in history.”

To read more about what rights activists feel will be the impact on rights of the BJP’s election win, see the full AWID Friday File, Activists Reflect on the Rights Implications of India’s New Government.

[1] International environmental organization Greenpeace was targeted in the recent Intelligence Bureau report for attacking India’s coal sector and threateningdevelopment.