When Narendra Modi defended himself against accusations around his controversial role in Gujarat’s 2002 riots earlier this month, it appeared to indicate that the politician widely tipped as India’s next Prime Minister was at least attempting to dial back some of the polarizing intensity around his political image. The sectarian violence has long been a black spot on Modi’s record and his comments last week taking moral responsibility for the incident were a remarkable departure from his usual silence on the subject. However, his threats against Bangladeshi immigrants on Monday should serve as a reminder that despite Modi’s modest attempts at tempering his image for broader palatability, the leader is still as fully committed to the interests of his Hindu nationalist base.
Speaking to the English language NDTV channel, Modi pledged to deport Bangladeshi immigrants from India upon his ascension to power. “You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed,” Modi was quoted as saying during a visit to Serampore in India’s eastern West Bengal state. Modi also accused the state government of offering a “red carpet welcome” to immigrants from Bangladesh as part of “vote bank” politics. This is not the politician’s first foray into the issue: he had previously accused officials in Assam state of killing rhinos “to make way” for Bangladeshis as well as saying that “only Hindu” immigrants from Bangladesh should be welcome in India, according to Al Jazeera.
Modi’s remarks on Monday may have been aimed primarily at West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress party-led government; however, his statements echo similar sentiments recently voiced by fellow Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Just over a week ago, Subramanian Swamy, a senior leader in the party, made headlines after suggesting that Bangladesh should compensate India with land for “the influx of its citizens” arriving next door. According to Swamy, India’s secularism would be threatened unless action was taken to prevent “illegal infiltration” of “a particular religion.”
Immigration is far from the most important issue in India’s elections — so too within the BJP, for that matter — but Modi’s threats following so soon after Swamy’s provocative remarks will have have hackles raised across the border in Bangladesh. Which, along with India’s other neighbors, shares legitimate concerns about the foreign policy ramifications of a BJP win. Should a BJP government come to power, there is a fear that it would move to adopt a more hardline stance towards regional policy. Though sensitive border disputes have largely been avoided by Modi throughout his campaign, his views on Bangladeshi immigrants warn of the possibility of the issue exploding after he comes to power (as seems at this point inevitable).