NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s election commission on Monday banned a firebrand Hindu nationalist state chief minister from campaigning for three days to stop him stoking hatred between religious communities in a divisive election that will end next month.
The saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, had been warned this month about his campaign speeches, the election commission said in its order.
The commission said Adityanath, a holy man who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, had spoken about a “green virus” in a speech last week, apparently referring to Muslim voters who he said were being wooed by opposition parties.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been playing to its nationalist base and painting its rivals as soft on terrorism and eager to appease Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population.
A BJP spokesman said the party was inclusive towards all communities and its leaders were discussing the ban on Adityanath.
“The party believes in all-together development for all, and we don’t believe in any polarization,” the spokesman, Harish Srivastava, said.
The election commission also imposed a ban on the powerful leader of the Dalits, people at the bottom of the Hindu caste structure, saying she had violated a code of conduct by asking Muslims to vote en bloc for opposition candidates.
The ban on the Dalit leader, Mayawait, would run for two days, it said.
A spokesman for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which is in an alliance with another regional party in Uttar Pradesh, could not be reached.
Staggered voting in the general election began last Thursday and will end on May 19.
Although jobs, nationalism and conditions for farmers are the main issues, religion is an important and sensitive topic.
The BJP repeated in its manifesto a commitment to build a Hindu temple in the northern town of Ayodhya at a site disputed by Muslims, seeking to gain the support of majority Hindus.
Last week, BJP president Amit Shah referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as “termites” and vowed to throw them into the sea.
Surveys suggest that Modi’s ruling alliance can win a simple majority this time, a poorer performance that in the last election in 2014, when it secured a commanding majority on a promise to turn India into an economic and military power.
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel)