Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a brazen attempt at stoking anti-Muslim sentiment on Sunday while campaigning in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.

The prime minister, who is seeking a third consecutive term for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in multi-stage general elections that began on Friday, told his audience that the opposition Indian National Congress will redistribute their wealth to Muslims, whom he described as “infiltrators” who have more children.

Modi’s anti-Muslim dog whistle reflects themes seen elsewhere — including across Europe and in the United States — like affirmative action, birth rates, economic anxiety, migration, and social welfare spending.

The context for Modi’s remarks, however, is distinctly Indian.


Jobless Growth Under Modi

Rajasthan, a state ruled by Modi’s BJP, has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates in the country. Roughly 30 percent of those between the ages of 15 to 29 in urban areas of Rajasthan are unemployed, according to India’s Periodic Labor Force Survey.

The unemployment rate is particularly high among those with college degrees — a problem that is not unique to Rajasthan or for that matter India.

In Rajasthan, like other parts of India, government jobs are highly sought after. They’re in short supply and often secured by cheating. All this points toward not just a mismatch between labor supply and demand, but also fundamental flaws in how Modi has chosen to develop the Indian economy.

India is often hyped as the world’s fastest-growing large economy. Questions have arisen regarding the accuracy of official growth figures in India. But there is a consensus that inequality has grown under Modi.

While India’s economy may be outpacing China’s in growth, under Modi, India has seen what experts call jobless growth: high unemployment even as the economy grows at solid real rates.

Public opinion polls show that the unemployment crisis is a problem for Modi, though his party is still expected to win the polls.

  • In a February 2024 survey, most Indians said they regard India’s unemployment problem as “very serious” and believe Modi has done too little or has failed to generate jobs.
  • A majority also believes that the biggest beneficiary of Modi’s policies is big business.
  • Few are optimistic about a significant improvement in the economy in the short term.

Under Modi, crony capitalists like Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani have seen their wealth grow astronomically. Adani saw his net worth multiply by a staggering 20-fold over Modi’s first eight years in office.

As India’s rich get richer under Modi, social sector spending, however, has remained flat. Allocations for health care and education have declined as those funds have been redirected toward direct subsidies, which surged in response to the COVID pandemic and remain more than double than the amount spent in his first year in office. More than 800 million Indians receive free food grain, according to a Financial Times analysis, that is collected in shops that display Modi’s photo.

Modi and the Muslims

India’s Hindu majority is feeling the pinch. Modi knows this. And so his aim in his speech on Sunday was to redirect his base’s economic anxiety toward Muslims and the opposition. His effective message was: maybe things haven’t been perfect under me, but I’m batting for you and the opposition will favor them — i.e. the Muslims.

Modi, who rose to infamy in 2002 when he presided over deadly pogroms in the state of Gujarat that took the lives of over a thousand Muslims, has largely tasked overt anti-Muslim incitement to surrogates in recent years. His choice to go direct this time indicates that he’s aware of the public mood and the limited value his appeals to Hindu pride have for the penniless.

In his remarks on Sunday, Modi cited a call made nearly two decades ago by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for Muslims to have “the first claim on resources.”

Singh made these comments in December 2006 after the release of a government study, known as the Sachar Committee report, which found that Muslims face systemic exclusion in government and the financial sector and that their poverty rates, by some indicators, were on par with India’s long-marginalized lower castes.

In parts of India, some Muslim communities benefit from affirmative action policies known locally as reservations. This has angered Hindu nationalists, who seek to eliminate what they claim are preferential policies for Muslims.

But, in practice, it is Hindus who benefit the most from India’s ever-expanding quota system, which includes the country’s largest demographic: the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). Even some Brahmin communities, who top the caste system, have lobbied for and been included under such quota systems. The BJP itself has enlarged the quota system to include castes that have not been historically marginalized.

As India’s many compete for opportunities that are too few, a handful of mainly Hindu and Jain oligarchs thrive from Modi’s preferential treatment. India’s Muslims are merely convenient scapegoats.

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.


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