Modi Calls Muslims ‘Infiltrators’ Who Would Take India’s Wealth

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday called Muslims “infiltrators” who would take India’s wealth if his opponents gained power — unusually direct and divisive language from a leader who normally lets others do the dirtiest work of polarizing Hindus against Muslims.

Mr. Modi, addressing voters in the state of Rajasthan, referred to a remark once made by Manmohan Singh, his predecessor from the opposition Indian National Congress Party. Mr. Singh, Mr. Modi claimed, had “said that Muslims have the first right to the wealth of the nation. This means they will distribute this wealth to those who have more children, to infiltrators.”

Mr. Modi aimed his emotional appeal at women, addressing “my mothers and sisters” to say that his Congress opponents would take their gold and give it to Muslims.

Implications like these — that Muslims have too many babies, that they are coming for Hindus’ wives and daughters, that their nationality as Indian is itself in doubt — are often made by representatives of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P.

Mr. Modi’s use of such language himself, as he campaigns for a third term in office, raised alarm that it could inflame right-wing vigilantes who target Muslims, and brought up questions about what had prompted his shift in communication style. Usually, Mr. Modi avoids even using the word “Muslims,” coyly finding ways to refer indirectly to India’s largest minority group, of 200 million people.

Mallikarjun Kharge, the president of the Congress party, called Mr. Modi’s remarks “hate speech.” Asaduddin Owaisi, who represents the only national party for Muslims, lamented how “common Hindus are made to fear Muslims while their wealth is being used to enrich others.”

Tom Vadakkan, a spokesman for the B.J.P., said that Mr. Modi’s speech was being misinterpreted. “This is not about our compatriots, the Muslims,” he said. Mr. Modi was talking only about “infiltrators,” according to Mr. Vadakkan.

The prime minister’s fiery oration, delivered in 100-degree heat in the town of Banswara in arid Rajasthan, marked a contrast to the image he presents in international contexts.

During a visit to the White House in June, Mr. Modi said there was “no question of discrimination” in India. When he played host to the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi three months later, he chose the theme “the world is one family”(in Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of orthodox Hinduism).

He put his own face on soft-power outreach programs like World Yoga Day, broadcast to Times Square, using it to present a Hindu-centric India as a benign “teacher to the world.”

Campaigns that divide Hindus and Muslims can be useful in animating the hard-right Hindu base of Mr. Modi’s otherwise broad-based electorate, especially in places like Banswara, where Hindus outnumber Muslims by three to one.

With his remarks, Mr. Modi may have been trying to close a divide that has opened among Hindus in Rajasthan over whether to support the B.J.P., with one prominent group holding protests over comments made by a party official.

But the prime minister’s speech was also clearly intended for a wider audience; he shared a clip on his official social media channels.

The B.J.P. remains the favorite to win another parliamentary majority when six weeks of voting concludes on June 1 and ballots are counted three days later. Mr. Kharge, the Congress party president, called Mr. Modi’s speech — perhaps hopefully — a sign of desperation, adding that opposition candidates must be faring well in the early stages of balloting.

Neerja Chowdhury, a columnist and the author of “How Prime Ministers Decide,” echoed Mr. Kharge, saying that, in her view, “voters are expressing their dissatisfaction much more openly this time.” The B.J.P. is capable of a swift course correction, she added, because “they get feedback very quickly.”

Rahul Gandhi, the public face of the Congress party, said that Mr. Modi’s comments had been intended as a diversion from subjects that trouble ordinary voters, like joblessness and inflation.

That the prime minister alluded to religion at all in his speech drew complaints that he may have violated India’s election rules.

Candidates are supposed to be barred from asking for votes in the name of religion or caste. But B.J.P. leaders regularly invoke Hindu deities during campaign rallies. The country’s Election Commission, which enforces the rules, has taken little action against the party, even as it has moved against members of other parties in similar cases.

Uddhav Thackeray, a former ally of Mr. Modi’s who is now running against the B.J.P., declared that he would now ignore an Election Commission order to remove the word “Hindu” from his own party’s campaign song.

The basis for Mr. Modi’s attack was a 22-second excerpt from a statement that Mr. Singh, a Sikh economist who was the prime minister before Mr. Modi, made in 2006. Mr. Singh had been listing many of the traditionally disadvantaged groups in India, including lower-caste Hindus and tribal populations, and “in particular the Muslim community,” and said that all should share equitably in the nation’s wealth.

Since Mr. Modi took office in 2014, Muslims haven’t had a proportional share of India’s steady economic and social development. None of the 430 candidates the B.J.P. is fielding in the current election is Muslim.

Mr. Singh’s speech from 2006 seems old now, but it was made just four years after riots in the state of Gujarat under the watch of Mr. Modi. Hindus and Muslims hacked and burned one another and at least 1,000 died, most of them Muslims.

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