India’s Modi calls rivals pro-Muslim as election campaign changes tack

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party have begun attacking opposition rivals, saying they favor minority Muslims, in what analysts see as a bid to invigorate their hardline base after general elections began last week.

India began voting on Friday in a seven-phase election at which Modi seeks a rare third consecutive term, with campaigning that had so far largely focused on his record of growth and welfare as well as his personal popularity.

But in a speech on Sunday, Modi referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” who have “more children,” linking the comment to what he called an election plan of the main opposition Congress party to redistribute the wealth of Hindus among Muslims.

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The Congress denied making any such promise and petitioned the Election Commission to act against Modi, who surveys suggest will win a comfortable majority, though analysts say his party wants to avert possible voter fatigue and overconfidence.

The controversial remarks were an unusual “deviation” from Modi’s usual practice as he rarely targets Muslims directly, said Hilal Ahmed, a political analyst at Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

They followed low voter turnout in areas where the BJP had done well in 2019, he added.

“The low turnout simply means that the committed BJP voter has not yet come out,” Ahmed said. “They obviously want the committed voter to come out. That is the reason for this deviation.”

The comment on redistribution of wealth to Muslims was supported and amplified on Monday by BJP members, including Modi’s powerful cabinet colleague, Home Minister Amit Shah, who mentioned it in a campaign speech.

Modi aired the claim again on Tuesday, a day after speaking about the gains Muslims have made during his 10-year rule.

In the southern state of Karnataka, half of which votes on Friday in the second phase of elections, BJP members have staged protests against last week’s murder of a Hindu woman by a Muslim man.

They say the incident is an instance of “love jihad,” a term Hindu groups use to accuse Muslim men of waging a campaign that lures Hindu women to convert to Islam with promises of marriage.

Exposing opposition, BJP says

Modi’s government has repeatedly been accused of targeting and discrimination against India’s estimated 200 million Muslims, who form the world’s third-largest Muslim population.

The government has denied all accusations, and Modi has said he works for the betterment of all.

“Stating facts and exposing the flawed strategy of the opposition is our job,” BJP president J.P. Nadda told Reuters, when asked about Modi’s weekend comments.

But he said the BJP remained committed to its slogan of betterment, underlining reforms pushed by Modi’s government to help Muslim women and the poor among the community.

Another senior BJP leader and member of the party’s central election panel said Modi’s Sunday comments should not be seen as “polarizing,” as he had only reminded voters about the “Muslim-first strategy” of Congress and its allies.

He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In January, Modi inaugurated a grand temple to the Hindu god-king Lord Ram on a once-disputed site believed to be his birthplace, fulfilling a longstanding promise projected by the BJP as a symbol of Hindu rejuvenation.

In campaign speeches Modi refers to the temple, but he has focused more on his development and welfare record and national pride to counter the opposition focus on joblessness, price rise and rural distress in the world’s fastest growing major economy.

“When the campaign started, the focus was entirely on development, welfare, reaching out to marginalized people and Hindutva came last,” said analyst Ahmed, referring to the Hindu nationalism espoused by the BJP.

“After the first phase, they realized they need to go back to their own voters ... back to the basics.”

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