Ahead of Delhi polls, parties bank in on growing divisions

14.6 million voters are likely to vote in the poll that pits AAP against the BJP

New Delhi: With a day to go for the Delhi Assembly electionn, the pitch has been queered by the BJP's hardline stance on the new citizenship law brought in by the Union government.

Critics call the incendiary religious appeals by ruling party politicians a tactic of the BJP to win the polls by polarising the electorate and divert attention from the sluggish economy, which expanded at a 4.5 per cent annual pace in the last quarter, its slowest rate since mid-2018.

Saturday’s election is also being seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s response to nearly two months of protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act which fast-tracks naturalization for non-Muslim migrants from neighboring countries while implicitly excluding Muslims.

The election in New Delhi, where 14.6 million voters are likely to cast ballots on Saturday, pits Modi’s party against the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party, whose pro-poor policies have focused on fixing state-run schools, provided free healthcare and waived bus fare for women during the five years it has been in power.

A win would likely embolden Modi and his party, while a loss could further dent his image as an unstoppable political force.

During the campaigning that ended Thursday, Modi and other senior party leaders have focused their ire on a 45-day long sit-in led by Muslim women who have been blocking a highway for weeks through New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighborhood, to protest the citizenship law.

Modi has referred to the protesters as part of a “political design” and a “conspiracy.”

“This dog-whistle is basically a signal to his faithful to view the ongoing protests in Delhi through the lens of a well-cultivated prejudice against Muslims,” said Shuddhabrata Sengupta, an artist and curator and long-time Modi critic.

Other BJP leaders, however, have been more blatant.

A member of Parliament from Modi’s party cautioned at a public rally that the sit-in demonstrators would “enter people’s homes, rape women and then kill them off.” Another minister characterized the protesters as “traitors” and led a crowd in chanting the slogan “shoot them.”

Last week, a gunman fired shots at the protest site. As the police took him away, a video of the incident showed him saying: “In our country, only Hindus will prevail.” The man was immediately arrested and was in police custody.

For the Delhi election campaign, Modi tapped the top elected official of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Adityanath recently told a crowd assembled in Uttam Nagar, a densely-populated neighborhood in the capital, that Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s top elected leader, was dividing the country.

“Whenever Kejriwal is happy, Pakistan is happy too,” he said.

The BJP has over the years amplified its Hindu nationalist agenda fuelled by Modi’s extraordinary popularity.

By contrast, Kejriwal and the AAP have emphasized good governance, and a push to improve education and healthcare since its inception in 2013. In 2015, it went on to win a historic mandate in Delhi and beat the incumbent Congress party by bagging 67 out of 70 seats.

The Congress, a third party in contention for Saturday″s polls, has run a lackluster campaign and is expected to fare poorly.

But Congress, AAP and other opposition parties have banded together to denounce the BJP’s “communal polarization.”

Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP candidate and party spokesman, told The Associated Press that “nationalism is one of our main agenda and we will speak against those who plan to break India.”

Campaigning in the acrimonious election has also garnered admonishment by India’s election commission, which oversees the polls.

It banned two star campaigners from Modi’s party for 72 hours for hate speech.

Sanjay Kumar, a political scientist at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said many of the remarks made by politicians in the run-up to the polls qualified as such. And many Delhi voters blame the commission for failing to curb the rhetoric.

“The Election Commission should be more willing to recognize the threat posed by statements that are communal-driven,” said one voter, Shadab Abdullah.

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