This article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

India’s general election is a mind-boggling logistical feat, with more than 900 million people eligible to cast their ballots at a million polling stations. The vote for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, will be complete on 19 May 2019, after seven phases of voting in five weeks.

India’s election commission, which manages the polls, is generally considered one of the country’s most upstanding institutions. But in recent months, it has been criticised for not acting to curb candidates’ extreme rhetoric.

Most of the worst examples come from the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP president, Amit Shah, referred to unauthorised migrants from Bangladesh as “termites”. He said that if re-elected, the party would get rid of unauthorised migrants – but not migrants who happen to be Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh. He did not face censure. Yogi Adityanath, an ordained Hindu monk and the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, was suspended from campaigning for 72 hours after he breached rules on appealing for votes on sectarian grounds. He had told a crowd that if the BJP’s opponents had “faith in Ali [the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad], we have faith in [the Hindu god] Bajrang Bali”. Meanwhile, some opposition politicians have called on Muslims to vote for them, another breach of rules on sectarian campaigning.

The comments are indicative of a febrile climate in India, where tensions have been rising ever since President Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014. Modi and his BJP government have overseen a resurgence of right-wing Hindu nationalism, and it has become a key part of his re-election campaign. This kind of hardline political messaging can have violent consequences. From 2010 to 2017, 28 people have been killed and 124 injured in cow vigilante attacks, where a mob attacks someone – usually a Muslim – for eating beef, which is forbidden by Hinduism.

The apparently limited ability of the Indian election commission to curb hate speech has caused sufficient concern that the Supreme Court has said it will examine whether the commission has enough authority. Meanwhile, the vote goes on, and communal divisions continue to fester.