Gathering of public support usually comes before the passage of legislation. But, almost like the Bharatiya Janata Party is making a Russian reversal joke, it has decided to “prepare the ground” for a law that has already been passed by the government.
From January 5, the party began a door-to-door campaign all over the country with the aim of explaining the rationale behind the Citizenship Act amendments, which have led to protests around the country.
The same outreach campaign saw a Union Minister attempt to reach out to the Hindi film industry, even as movie stars and directors gathered for a demonstration against the act in Mumbai. The party also set up a phone number for people to give a missed call expressing their support for the act. Supporters then tried get calls on that number by promising everything from Netflix subscriptions to the opportunity to meet singles who “want to have sex with you” if you dialed it.
So much media scrutiny fell on these underhand methods of drawing support – and, crucially, phone numbers for the BJP database – that Home Minister Amit Shah had to say this:
He nevertheless went ahead and claimed that lakhs of people support the Citizenship Act amendments, because of phone calls received on the same number.
The government had done some groundwork before passing the Citizenship Act amendments – but almost entirely in the North East and at the political level. The protests, have, however made it clear how the Act will potentially affect people around the country, and how little the wider public understood of the changes beyond the North East.
And so, this post-facto attempt at displaying support for something that the government, with its brute majority, bulldozed through parliament in December has raised eyebrows about the BJP’s political strategy.
“This is the first time when I have seen BJP flounder with the CAA missed call campaign being hijacked and falling through the bottom,” Naresh Gupta, strategy head and managing partner at advertising agency Bang in the Middle, told Mint. “I don’t think the party and government understand the depth of anger that exists in the people so they are trying to gloss over it by launching a back-to-back campaign across platforms.”
CAA + NRC
The Citizenship Act amendments passed by Parliament in December fast-track the naturalisation process for illegal immigrants who are not Muslim and have come to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. From the very beginning, the proposed law sparked fears in the North East that it will lead to large-scale demographic change.
Repeated comments by Home Minister Amit Shah have also made it clear that the Act is meant to be used in conjunction with a National Register of Citizens, which many fear will be used to harass Indian Muslims. The government now claims that it isn’t planning to carry out an NRC anytime soon, but has not categorically said it will not.
The combination of the two – the Citizenship Act as well as the NRC, which will be carried out using the National Population Register – is what has sparked off protests around the country, bringing tens of thousands onto India’s streets against the BJP’s attempts to change some of the fundamental values underpinning the Constitution.
Modi and Shah have tried to insist that only Opposition parties and Muslims are against the Citizenship Act changes, yet there has been pushback from the BJP’s allies too. Questions have also been raised globally about the government’s actions and what they might mean for India’s human rights record.
370 vs CAA
Two things are different from the last controversial legislation that Amit Shah was able to bulldoze through Parliament in August 2019: The changes to the Article 370 that took away the limited autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded it to a union territory.
The first is a decades-long vilification campaign against Kashmiris, not simply because they are Muslims but also because the state’s complicated relationship with India has been spun by all previous governments in New Delhi, Congress or BJP, as intransigence on the part of its residents.
This is why people around the country believed Jammu and Kashmir had some sort of “special deal”, almost making it seem as if its people were pampered by the Indian state, even as the Kashmir valley became one of the most militarised places in the world, where the Armed Forces operated with impunity.
The ground, in that case, had been prepared over decades – and by all mainstream political actors, not just the BJP.
The second was the power the Central government has to trample on civil liberties in Jammu and Kashmir after it took away the autonomy of Article 370. In part because of the image of Kashmiris, New Delhi was able to turn off communication lines in the Valley and lock up its political leaders with barely any opposition from the rest of the country.
The BJP’s actions were blatantly political. Behind the facade of security threats, the communication lockdown and house arrest of politicians was expliclity done to ensure that no one had a chance to disagree with its controversial decision, allowing Amit Shah to brazenly insist all is normal and Kashmir is better off.
Shah has tried the same across the country – and indeed, in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Adityanath has mobilised the police to ensure, through violence, that dissent will be severely punished. In other places, the internet was turned off and protesters were detained. But that hasn’t stopped people from taking to the streets, particularly in Opposition-run states.
Moreover, it is clear that the ground was simply not prepared for such actions – and maybe even that the BJP misread its electoral mandate.
Early on in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, he attempted to pass a Land Acquisition Bill that did away with a number of provisions meant to protect the rights of land-owners, which industry found cumbersome. Pushback from farmers and the Opposition forced Modi to eventually withdraw the Bill.
The U-turn was seen as re-calibration from the prime minister, who may have believed until then that the big 2014 Lok Sabha victory gave him a carte blanche to do as he wished. Instead, the pushback – including the Congress’ jibe that this was a suit-boot ki sarkar (a government for the rich) – led to a major change in priorities, with the government focusing much more on welfare delivery and a right-wing cultural agenda.
Could the BJP have similarly misunderstood how much political capital it had in store after the 2019 Lok Sabha victory?
This is not to claim that a plurality of BJP voters, or even a significant section of them, are against the Citizenship Act changes. In fact, many probably buy the government’s propaganda that it will be harmless for Indian Muslims.
But they may still believe this is not a priority at the moment, that this is not what Modi was re-elected to do. That was the message received from the opposition to the Land Acquisition changes in 2015 as well – though the difference is that, with a religious angle, the Citizenship Act-NRC combination is a key expression of the BJP’s ideology and crucial to its electoral campaign in West Bengal.
Amit Shah may have promised, in his 2019 campaign rallies, to throw out illegal immigrants who are “termites”. But, outside of West Bengal, he did not prepare the ground for this Citizenship Act-NRC double whammy that has raised the spectre of a bureaucratic nightmare for poor Indians, with Muslims in particular fearing an existential threat.
So now, the BJP has sought to backtrack on rhetoric, without any actual changes. First Modi insisted that no NRC was even discussed. Now there is the Netflix-and-kill campaign from Amit Shah and Adityanath. And at the same time, quietly in West Bengal, the BJP is still telling people about the Citizenship Act-NRC combo.
How long can the party continue to do this dance? The retreat from the NRC makes it clear that the BJP understands this is not just a “Muslim fear” – even if it would like that to be the narrative.
The question over the next few months is this: Will the BJP be able to weather the protest storm, even as it works to bring the masses around to its thinking on the NRC and Citizenship Act? Or will the public display of dissent snowball to pull in other concerns such as the economy? January 8’s nationwide strike against labour regulation changes and other “anti-poor” policies might give us some indication of how things will go.