India’s general elections won’t take place till the spring. But the campaign season will effectively begin on January 22, the day a Hindu temple opens on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu extremists in the northern city of Ayodhya.
The Ram Temple, as it is known, has been decades in the making. But it will be used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to symbolize India’s transformation into a Hindu rashtra — or a Hindu nation-state.
Erasing Islam in Ayodhya
In 1992, extremists from a network of Hindutva groups — including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules India today — destroyed the 464-year-old Babri Mosque, which they claimed was built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.
According to Hindu mythology, Ram was born in Ayodhya, but there is no evidence of his birth on the site, or for that matter, that he actually ever existed.
Hindu nationalists also allege that the Babri Mosque was built on the site of a Hindu temple destroyed by the Mughals. But Supriya Varma, an Indian archeologist, disputes those claims, arguing that “there is no evidence for a temple.” In fact, she says excavations of the site actually reveal that there were older mosques below the Babri Mosque.
Armed with axes, Hindu nationalists made their own facts on the ground. They destroyed the mosque after an eight-year nationwide agitation campaign by the BJP and its affiliated groups that served to radicalize much of the Hindu population.
Even after the mosque’s destruction, the dispute over the site continued in India’s courts. Then, in 2019, at the start of Modi’s second term as prime minister, the Indian Supreme Court awarded the entire Babri Mosque site to Hindu litigants, which included, somehow, the deity Ram himself. Muslims were awarded a site of land elsewhere.
The Babri Mosque verdict reflected the capture of India’s institutions by Hindu nationalist groups and sympathizers and the absence of meaningful checks and balances on Modi.
Now, as Modi begins his campaign for a third term as prime minister, the completed Ram Temple, his supporters hope, will serve as a tombstone for the Indian secularism the Hindu nationalist leader pledged to bring to an end.
Secularism’s Last Chance?
The 2024 Indian elections will be a test of whether India’s opposition and Indian secularism itself have a fighting chance.
Led by the Indian National Congress party, the opposition has formed a 28-party electoral coalition known as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.).
The acronym took on a newer meaning this fall as the Modi government indicated it could formally change the country’s official name to Bharat, which Hindu nationalists see as more authentic, given that it is reflected in the ancient Hindu texts. Many in the BJP see the name “India” as a vestige of colonialism. The debate over the names encapsulates two very different visions for the country: a secular, pluralist India versus an authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian Bharat.
Modi’s BJP is almost certain to win the general elections that will likely take place in stages from April to May. But the polls will serve as a test of whether India’s opposition parties can band together and assemble a coalition that can compete with the BJP at a national level. At the moment, parties within the I.N.D.I.A. alliance are in contentious discussion over arrangements not to run candidates against one another, a process known as seat adjustment.
India After Modi: It Will Probably Get Worse
Should the BJP win this spring’s elections, Modi’s third term could be the 73-year-old’s swan song.
Already, speculation has begun as to who will succeed the Hindu strongman. The favorite right now is Yogi Adityanath, a rabidly militant Hindu monk who rules India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.
In 2002, Modi presided over anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. Initially, the violence made Modi a pariah. But the muscular brand of Hindutva developed in the “laboratory” of Gujarat has since been mainstreamed.
Today, the state of Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath is a laboratory for something far more pernicious. It is modern India’s first experiment with priestly rule — one that mixes religious austerity with state coercion and violence.
Adityanath’s government has banned halal product certification and renamed cities with names related to Islam or Muslims. The bulldozing of homes of Muslims by the Adityanath government is so common that he’s now known as the “Bulldozer Baba.” (The word “baba,” in this context, is an honorific for ascetic religious leaders.)
When asked in an interview with the Financial Times last month about the treatment of Muslims, Modi chose instead to talk about another community: the Parsis. He remains uncompromising in his messaging on the Muslim question ahead of this year’s elections, making no effort to assuage the concerns of Western liberal democracies.
Modi simply doesn’t care. What’s worse: his successor will most likely be far more brazen and far more brutal.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.