First they said they were opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Act. Then they said they were actually against the National Register of Citizens. Then they took aim at the National Population Register. Now they are arguing that even reverting to the Congress-era 2010 version of the NPR is not enough. It will have to be suspended altogether.

Are protesters and critics shifting their goalposts just to disagree with anything that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government does?

After all, haven’t leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party made it clear that no Indian Muslim has any reason to be afraid of its citizenship initiatives?

To understand the answer to that question, consider the matter of trust.

The ATM joke

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh may insist over and over again that Indian Muslims have nothing to be afraid of. The government’s supporters may point to Prime Minister Narendra Modi claiming that the word “NRC” was not even brought up in his tenure. Home Minister Amit Shah might avoid the word altogether when he is in Bengal.

Yet, the underlying fact is, nobody trusts this government.

Let us put this another way. What is the lasting legacy of demonetisation in popular culture, three years after the government’s flagship move to withdraw and replace 86% of Indian currency?

Every time we hear about Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearing time in his schedule to address the nation, people joke that they need to rush to the ATMs or fear for their bank savings.

This suggests that Modi has a well-earned reputation for being unpredictable.

In 2016, it was the surgical strikes against Pakistan and then demonetisation. In 2019, we got a surprise 10% upper caste quota, PM-KISAN, the Balakot strike and the controversial stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy.

An old man crying after missing his spot at the State Bank of India, New Colony branch, in Gurgaon shortly after demonetisation was announced. Credit: HT Photo

Move fast and break things

Wherever you stand politically, it can be nobody’s case that these policies were made after careful deliberation and consultation with all sections of Indian society. These efforts bear Modi’s imprimatur, pulling a leaf out of Mark Zuckerberg’s book: move fast and break things.

Facebook has dropped that motto, belatedly recognising that it is a recipe for disaster. Yet the BJP still swears by it. Even ahead of an election in which the party is miles behind its competitors, people talk of Modi and Shah delivering a surprise gambit.

And it has often worked politically.

Demonetisation, whatever it may have done to the Indian economy, did not hurt the BJP’s chances in the Uttar Pradesh elections that came soon after (though there have recently been some questions about this). The Balakot attack is widely credited for shoring up the BJP’s numbers in the General Elections of 2019.

And the Jammu and Kashmir changes seemed to happen so quickly that nobody was able to muster any opposition, even though they involved the state trampling on civil liberties and the arrest of mainstream politicians.

Dangerously unpredictable

A lack of predictability may be great for politics. It is terrible for governance.

Citizens need to know that the government will do what it says. Investors need to know that regulations will not be changed overnight. The public needs to know that the state has an interest in enforcing the law.

Trust is crucial.

When the governor of a state tells people that they are unnecessarily panicking over rumours that a security lockdown is about to take place, the public should be able to believe him. When people put their money in a bank, they need to know they will always be able to access it. When people call the police to save them from a violent mob, they need to trust that the forces will not attack them instead.

If the state betrays this trust, if it goes back on its word, it attacks the very foundation of the Indian state, the implicit compact between the state and its subjects.

This is why the BJP’s reassurances to Indian Muslims, to the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets against the Citizenship Act amendments have amounted to naught.

Over 100,000 people in Mumbai protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 19. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Legal fictions

The party’s leaders may give their word over and over to Indian Muslims. Their supporters might argue about all of the technicalities of the law, proving that it will not harm minorities.

Yet none of these words can undo the words of Amit Shah as heexplained the “chronology” and telling people at multiple election rallies how the NRC will be targeted against Muslims. None of those arguments can explain the inflammatory and openly communal rhetoric used by the BJP in the Delhi elections. None of the promises can erase the visuals of the police openly siding with the anti-Muslim mobs in the Delhi riots.

Nobody trusts the BJP when it says it has no plans to conduct an NRC. The expectation is that, just like demonetisation, the government will suddenly reveal that it has used NPR data to prepare a National Register of Citizens.

Like the complicated legal fiction it used to undo Article 370, which hasn’t yet been tested in court, there is a widespread belief that the government will just use underhand methods to eventually conduct an NRC. Nobody knows where this trick will be pulled off, which is why the focus has expanded from just the CAA to also include the NPR, including its 2010 version.

Proof on paper

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seems to understand this. That is why he did not rely on just giving his word – and instead passed an Assembly resolution vowing not to conduct the NRC. His decision to fall back on the 2010 NPR may be flawed, but the use of Assembly resolutions signals an understanding that rhetorical promises alone do not hold water.

If the BJP is serious about addressing the concerns of protesters, the path is simple, as Shoaib Daniyal wrote in February: “Immediately stop work on the National Population Register, the first step of the NRC, repeal the 2003 Citizenship Rules, which create the legal framework for a National Register of Citizens, and amend the Citizenship Amendment Act to ensure that it does not discriminate against any community.”

Notice, this does not amount to asking for persecuted refugees to be kept out or for the Citizenship Act amendments to be discarded altogether. Instead, it allows for the law to be re-worked with broader consultation, while also legally assuring citizens that their rights are not in question.

Modi and Shah need to realise that, because of their predeliction for grand political surprises, nobody takes them at their word. If the country is to move forward and rebuild trust, they would do well to take a cue from Nitish Kumar and put their assurances on legislative paper.