India’s election watchdog expresses ‘concern’ but does not suspend Modi over ‘anti-Muslim’ hate speech

India’s election commission has served only a gentle rebuke to prime minister Narendra Modi, as well as to the primary opposition Congress party, for making divisive speeches during the campaign for the ongoing general election, leaving critics who accuse the watchdog of favouring the ruling party unimpressed.

At a campaign rally in western Rajasthan state last month, Mr Modi told the country’s Hindus that the Congress party, if elected, would “snatch away” their wealth and give it to the Muslim minority, inviting widespread condemnation and complaints to the election body.

The watchdog, in a break from its usual practice, sent a notice to Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and not to him personally. Nonetheless, it was the first time in India’s independent history that the commission had recognised a complaint against a sitting prime minister.

It did the same when a complaint was made against Mr Modi’s chief rival Rahul Gandhi for allegedly making “false allegations” on the campaign trail, including that the ruling party would change India’s constitution if it won a third term in power, sending a notice to his Congress party.

Now, almost a month later, the commission has ticked off Mr Modi for his election rhetoric, saying both his and Mr Gandhi’s defences were “not tenable”.

It asked the prime minister to maintain decorum as his party’s star campaigner in a six-week general election that is widely expected to hand him a third term in power.

The complaint against Mr Modi accused him of making divisive speeches and fomenting religious, caste and linguistic animosity.

In his Rajasthan speech, the complaint said, Mr Modi sought votes in the name of religion by falsely claiming that the Congress party would take wealth from “Hindu wives and daughters” and hand it over to Muslims, whom he referred to by the Hindu nationalist dog whistles of "infiltrators" and “those with more children".

“Earlier, when they were in power they had said Muslims have the first right to the wealth of the nation,” Mr Modi said, referring to the Congress. “This means they will distribute the wealth to those who have more children, to infiltrators. Should your hard earned money be given to infiltrators? Do you approve of this?"

He went on to falsely claim that the Congress party’s manifesto declared they would “take stock of the gold mothers and daughters have and distribute that wealth”.

The prime minister has since tried to argue that he was not referring to Muslims in his speech, but generally to “poor people”.

In response to the complaints against Mr Modi and leaders of the Congress party, the election commission on Wednesday expressed “concern” that campaigners had continued to make such speeches and ordered parties to “refrain from making any statement” prohibited under the election code.

The Congress was specifically told to not give the "false impression" that the constitution could be "abolished or sold".

The commission has the power to suspend political leaders from campaigning if they are found in breach of its rules, and has exercised such measures in the past. It decided not to do so in the case of Mr Modi or Mr Gandhi.

India is currently conducting the world’s largest election. Nearly a billion people are registered to vote in seven phases of polling to decide whether Mr Modi will stay on as the prime minister for a rare third term.

Mr Modi’s BJP began the election campaign season by claiming it would win an unprecedented 400 seats out of the 543 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Recent predictions have been less convincingly in the party’s favour, although it is still widely expected to win another majority.

The votes will be counted and the results declared on 4 June.