NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition party on Thursday condemned Prime Minister Narendra Modi for anti-Muslim comments in election campaign speeches that have heightened concerns over sectarian tensions in the world’s biggest democracy.

Modi remains popular across much of India and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win this general election when it concludes in early June.

Since voting began last month, the 73-year-old premier has stepped up his rhetoric targeting India’s main religious divide in a bid to rally voters. He has referred in campaign rallies to Muslims as “infiltrators” and claimed the main opposition Congress party would redistribute the nation’s wealth to Muslims if it won.

P. Chidambaram, a former Indian finance minister and senior lawmaker for Congress, said on Thursday that Modi was playing “his usual game of dividing Hindus and Muslims”. “The world is watching and analysing the Indian prime minister’s statements, and they do not bring glory to India,” he added.

After Modi suggested that a former prime minister from Congress had planned for a separate “Muslim budget”, the party’s general secretary Jairam Ramesh condemned his statements as “nonsensical”.

“This is typical Modi bombast and bogusness,” he said on Wednesday on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Since he swept to power a decade ago, Modi has sought to align India’s politics more closely with its majority faith, in defiance of the country’s officially secular constitution.

His cultivated image as a champion of Hinduism has made him roundly popular but has left many among the country’s 200-million-plus Muslim minority uneasy about their status and anxious about their futures.

Modi on Tuesday denied stoking religious tensions in a television interview with broadcaster News18. “The day I start talking about Hindu-Muslim (divisions) will be the day I will lose my ability to lead a public life,” he said.

‘Vote jihad’

But at a campaign rally the following day, Modi accused Congress of planning to commit “vote jihad”, an implied suggestion that his opponents were rallying Muslims to vote against him.

India’s poll code prohibits sectarian campaigning and opposition parties lodged a complaint about an earlier Modi speech last month with the election commission, which has yet to announce any sanctions against the premier.

Other members of Modi’s party have been accused of matching his rhetoric and unfairly targeting Muslims during the election.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2024

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