Mayawati urged Muslims to vote in a bloc against Modi’s BJP

NEW DELHI: India’s election watchdog yesterday banned two outspoken politicians from campaigning in the country’s national vote for making provocative speeches which it said could stir communal unrest. The measures came after the Supreme Court called on the election commission to get tough on hate speech during the world’s biggest election, which started last Thursday and runs through to May 19.

Mayawati, a leader for low-caste Dalits, was banned from campaigning for 48 hours for calling on Muslims to vote in a bloc against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yogi Adityanath, firebrand BJP chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, was sidelined for three days for his response to Mayawati, comparing the election to a battle between Muslim and Hindu gods.

Hindus-who make up the majority community in India-had “no option” but to support the BJP, he added. Both politicians made “highly provocative speeches” which had “the tone and tenor to aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred between different religious communities,” the commission said.

Indian politicians are often accused of using hate speech and intimidation to win votes. The Indian campaign has been marked by headline-grabbing declarations by politicians. Adityanath has already waded into trouble by calling Muslims the “green virus” who are set to “engulf the nation”. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj caused controversy last week by saying he was a “saint” who would put a “curse” anyone who votes against him-while another BJP contender, Maneka Gandhi, said Muslims should vote for her or their future requests could be shunned if she wins.

The Supreme Court has in turn called on opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi to explain why he “incorrectly” attributed remarks to the court saying that Modi had “committed a theft” in agreeing a fighter deal with France. The election commission-often accused of being ineffective-has been flooded with complaints since campaigning started in March, and the Supreme Court told it to “act very promptly” on potential violations.

The watchdog told the court its code of conduct limits the punishments it can mete out however. “We can’t de-recognize them (parties) or disqualify candidates,” the counsel representing the commission at the hearing on Monday said. The commission sought to counter critics this month by postponing the release of a fawning film biography of Modi. It also ordered a clampdown on a TV channel dedicated to the prime minister, NaMO TV.

KASHMIR: Supporters of Pro-Indian National Conference (NC) shout slogans as they attend an election campaign in Srinagar yesterday. India’s gargantuan election, the biggest in history, kicked off on April 11 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term from the South Asian behemoth’s 900 million voters. —AFP

Extreme poverty falling
In another development, India’s finance minister said yesterday fast economic growth and rapid urbanization would slash the number of people in extreme poverty by 2021 and end it completely in the decade after that. More than 21 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2011, when the last census was taken, according to the World Bank.

The economy is a major issue in a staggered general election that began on Thursday and will end on May 19, with the main opposition Congress party rejecting a rosy picture Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been presenting. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who heads the BJP’s publicity department in the election, said the number of people who live in poverty would drop to below 15 percent in the next three years and to a negligible level in the 10 years after that. “Urbanization will increase, the size of the middle-class will grow and the economy will expand manifolds,” Jaitley said in a Facebook post.

“These will add to the number of jobs, and as the experience of the past three decades have shown in the liberalized economy, every section of citizens will benefit.” Economic growth in recent years had generated enough revenue for states to work more on poverty alleviation, job creation and improving healthcare and education, he said. But the Congress has taken issue with such assertions, in particular, pointing to leaked government data that showed unemployment rose to its highest level in at least 45 years in 2017/18.

Jaitley said economic problems could be addressed as India remained the world’s fastest growing major economy. But he said restoring peace in the insurgency-hit state of Jammu and Kashmir was the most important issue facing the country. “The issue of Jammu and Kashmir and terror continues to remain the biggest challenge before India,” he said. “It relates to our sovereignty, integrity and security.” Modi has won public praise by taking a tough line on neighboring Pakistan, which India accuses of backing separatist militants in Muslim-majority Kashmir. Pakistan denies that. – Agencies