Firefighters douse burning vehicles caused by a mob during BJP President Amit Shahs election roadshow for the last phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Kolkata. (Source: PTI)

Campaigning in India Gets Ugly as Weeks-Long Election Heats Up

(Bloomberg) -- After weeks of heated rhetoric and insults, an outbreak of violence has marred India’s election this week as supporters of rival political parties clashed on the streets of Kolkata in the crucial state of West Bengal.

The Election Commission of India made the rare move of suspending campaigning roughly one-day early -- at 10 p.m. on May 16 -- before nine parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal vote on May 19. It was likely the first time the agency has suspended campaigning in this way, election officials told reporters on May 15, but said it may not be the last if “lawlessness and violence” happen again.

Separately, as the weeks-long election entered its final phase, a candidate for India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party drew condemnation for praising the assassin of Mohandas Gandhi as a “patriot.”

The violence that prompted the election commission’s move took place after the BJP’s president, Amit Shah, held a campaign rally in West Bengal, a state dominated by the regional All India Trinamool Congress party. Supporters fought running street battles with each other, while Shah -- whose convoy was pelted with stones -- had to be escorted to safety, according to the Press Trust of India.

The battle for the state of West Bengal -- one of the country’s most politically-important provinces -- has intensified as the BJP tries to peel seats away from the Trinamool’s powerful leader Mamata Banerjee. Her party won 34 of the state’s 42 federal seats in 2014 and Banerjee has been outspoken against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party.

The vandalism of a statue of the revered Bengali historical figure Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar has amplified the animosity, with condemnations from across the political spectrum. Many opposing the BJP -- including Banerjee herself -- have changed their Twitter profile photos to show the social reformer’s face, while even election commission officials said they were “deeply anguished” by the vandalism.

Gandhi’s Assassin

Although polling has been mostly peaceful, India’s election had already seen its share of fiery and controversial statements.

Most recently, BJP candidate Pragya Singh Thakur on Thursday praised Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, in a video posted by Indian TV network Asian News International.

Some Hindu nationalists dislike Gandhi because they believe his appeasement of Muslims led to the division of India and the creation of Pakistan. Thakur, a self-styled Hindu holy woman, faces charges related to a bomb blast in a Muslim neighborhood that killed six people and injured 100 in 2008.

Insults, Rhetoric

Some politicians, including the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath and Dalit leader Mayawati, have already been censured for religious hate speech.

Modi, in one recent speech, started days of political mudslinging when he said his chief rival Rahul Gandhi’s father -- former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991 --- died as India’s most corrupt person.

Mayawati, who leads the Bahujan Samaj Party which is opposing the BJP in an alliance in Uttar Pradesh, later lashed out at the prime minister over his personal life and his decision to live alone despite a marriage earlier in his life, according to a PTI report.

“How can he respect others’ sisters and wives when he has left his own innocent wife for political gains?” she asked, according to a PTI report.

India’s election, which began on April 11, concludes on May 23.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.