People take part in a candlelight march at the India Gate in protest over Kathua gangrape case, in New Delhi. (Source: PTI)

Gang Rape of Two Girls Fuels Angry Backlash Against India's Modi

(Bloomberg) -- The failure of India’s ruling party to act on growing outrage over two brutal rapes risks eroding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s voter support ahead of state and national elections.

In a crime that shocked India, an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir was kidnapped in January, drugged, held for several days in Kathua while she was raped multiple times and then murdered, local police said. In Uttar Pradesh, a state lawmaker from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party stands accused in a June 2017 rape case in Unnao. No action was taken against the politician until the girl threatened to set herself on fire earlier this month. Her father died soon after from injuries he sustained while in police custody.

Gang Rape of Two Girls Fuels Angry Backlash Against India's Modi

The crimes have drawn comparisons to the 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman on a New Delhi bus that forced a painful national discussion on violence against women and girls. Now the world’s attention is again focused on the Indian government’s failure to keep its female citizens safe.

Urban voters, especially women -- a voter base that stood by Modi in 2014 and largely backed his policies on demonetization and GST -- have been the largest group protesting the rapes on the streets and social media. The involvement of men linked to his party in both cases risks eroding the support he’d courted by pushing for election handouts like cooking gas that frees women from unhealthy wood fires and outlawing so-called instant divorce in Muslim communities.

‘Back to the Wall’

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres has urged authorities to act, according to the Times of India.

The crimes have hurt the BJP’s image among urban middle class voters, who hoped for better oversight of law and order in the face of Hindu mob violence, particularly after the 2012 rape, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a Modi biography.

"There’s no doubt that he has his back to the wall," Mukhopadhyay said. "The international attention this issue has garnered -- the UN general secretary’s comments -- is hard to ignore. Especially because Mr Modi wants the world to do business with India, which they won’t if they see India as a country run by Hindu fanatics. But these fanatics are precisely the people who form the BJP’s core support base."

The BJP’s New Delhi-based national spokesman, Nalin Kohli, said Modi had "specifically, unequivocally and repeatedly spoken against rape" and noted the harshest punishment should be meted out to the perpetrators. "The incidents shouldn’t be seen through a Hindu-Muslim prism," Kohli said. "Each one of these cases -- be it Kathua, Unnao, Assam or Surat -- has to be brought to justice and will be brought to justice."

Kohli was referring to recent rapes and murders of minor girls in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and Assam where the accused is allegedly a Muslim man.

Modi, who spoke out on Friday after a week of intense media coverage, was criticized for not immediately addressing the issue. While opposition leader Rahul Gandhi appeared at a midnight candlelight vigil, online news websites in India posted blank templates of stories featuring Modi’s comments -- saying they will be "updated once Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually speaks" about the rapes.

"The incidents in the past two days are an embarrassment to the civilized society," Modi said Friday. "No culprit will be spared. Justice will be delivered. Those daughters will get due justice."

Sectarian Tensions

The assaults touch on volatile political and religious fault lines, and risk further dividing voters.

The rape and murder of the Muslim girl by Hindu men in polarized Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir comes at a time when Hindu nationalists have launched attacks on Muslims. After this rape, lawyers protested in front of the court in Kathua to prevent police filing charges, drawing outrage. Two local BJP ministers -- who subsequently had to resign -- joined a rally in support of the accused.

Gang Rape of Two Girls Fuels Angry Backlash Against India's Modi

In Uttar Pradesh, the accusations against a BJP politician and the death of the victim’s father after he was injured in policy custody ensured the matter attracted international attention. The BJP lawmaker, who was arrested on Friday after a local court reprimanded investigators, has denied the rape allegation.

In one neighborhood in the city of Allahabad, residents even put up a sign saying "entry of politicians & members of the BJP is prohibited" because of the party’s perceived role in crimes against women. Similar signs appeared in the southern state of Kerala.

Modi’s party came to power promising equality for women, but the BJP has proven it is primarily committed to preserving votes from its core constituency of Hindu nationalist men, said Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court lawyer and women’s rights activist in New Delhi.

"The BJP may still win election after election, but they’ve lost any moral authority to govern this country," Grover said. "They must remember that women vote in very large numbers and women will see through these gimmicks."

Grover said the prime minister’s "belated, vague and insignificant remarks" will not convince women because the legislator in Uttar Pradesh, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, remains part of state BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s government.

"Women are under threat in this country," Grover said. "The mask has slipped from Modi’s government -- its ugly face is there to see."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.