As the nation-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens continue unabated, Opposition parties that were gasping for breath after the second successive election victory of the NDA in May this year have galvanized into action, even at the cost of inviting the charge from BJP of “instigating” violence by “misleading” people.
There is a realization in the Opposition that despite the government saying that there had been no discussion on the NRC so far, the BJP is sandwiched between the pressure from its core constituency to push the Hindutva issues and the challenge from the widening ambit of the protest against the CAA, which has not been a ‘Muslims alone’ phenomenon as the government may have expected it to be.
Sections of the Hindu intelligentsia, Dalit groups and Socialist leaders having substantial say among OBCs, too, are protesting. Most importantly, the government will be, or should be, worried about how the youth of the country have mobilised and taken the lead in the protests.
The victory that the opposition alliance of JMM, Congress and RJD snatched from the jaws of a resurgent BJP in the tribal state of Jharkhand last week, with the backing of a Dalit-Muslim combine and the OBCs despite the BJP’s high-octane campaign around the CAA-NRC and the Ram temple, has given it a shot in the arm and a hope that the Modi-Shah duo, in the BJP’s second stint, can be checkmated if a numerically strong social coalition can be put together to challenge it and elections could be centred around local and livelihood issues.
Earlier, the BJP failed to repeat its 2014 performance in the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana. In Maharashtra, it lost its oldest ally, Shiv Sena, and with it a second term in power; in Haryana, it fell short of majority and had to tango with a post-election ally, a Jat party at that, leaving aside its “no-jat” consolidation politics.
This shows that either the Opposition managed to blunt the BJP’s planks of Article 370, triple talaq and Savarkar in Hindu-dominated Maharashtra and the Haryana elections as well, or that the people aren’t buying into these and are rather focused on their bread-and-butter issues.
Moreover, with people coming on to the streets defying the imposition of Section 144 and protests spreading across a large number of cities and universities after the police crackdown at the Jamia Milia University, the Opposition is sensing that the sentiment among the youth, who have since 2014 voted overwhelmingly for Modi, is turning against the ruling party.
Though pro-CAA rallies were also taken out by BJP supporters, the number of anti-CAA rallies have been greater and the sheer number of protesting youth in them an eye-opener. In Delhi, the massive anti-CAA/NRC protests, with the youth in the lead, have been reminiscent of the post-Nirbhaya gang rape protests in December 2012.
The upcoming Budget session of Parliament, beginning next month, will be an important one for the Opposition parties to come together and voice their protest on the issue.
On the streets, leaders from Congress, Left parties and some others have come out to back the anti-CAA protests, inviting criticism from Home Minister Amit Shah, who questioned why they not make those arguments in Parliament. Congress organised a ‘Satyagraha’ and on Saturday, its top leaders fanned out across the nation – from Rahul Gandhi in Assam to Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi and P Chidambaram in Thiruvananthapuram -- holding foot-marches and rallies against the government.
The Congress and Left parties organised a joint rally in Kolkata on Friday while Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s campaign against the CAA also continued. Mamata has warned that the CAA/NRC is not just against Muslims but against all sections of people.
Herein lies the challenge the Opposition faces -- to debunk the BJP’s propaganda that only Muslims are protesting against the CAA/NRC. Prime Minister Modi himself, for instance, remarked during an election rally in Jharkhand that “those protesting can be identified by their clothes,” and the rank-and-file of the BJP have taken the cue from that.
At the pro-CAA rally in Mumbai on Friday, former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis hardened the Hindutva and nationalism pitch and accused Congress, Left and the BJP’s former ally Shiv Sena of standing with those shouting slogans against Hindus and the nation.
In Delhi, Shah called for the defeat of the “tukde tukde gang”. The BJP thus seems to be upping the ante in the only way it knows – by calling those who are protesting against the CAA/NRC as “anti-national” and painting the Congress and the Left parties as having joined hands with Jihadis.
The Opposition is reaching out to some NDA allies and other parties which backed the CAA in Parliament but later re-calibrated their position – such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, which sought the inclusion of Muslims in the amendment, the JD(U), BJD and YSR Congress, which have said no to NRC after backing the CAA, and parties in the North-East, which are up in arms against the CAA.
Some 10 chief ministers of non-BJP states have announced that they will not implement CAA/NRC. While JD(U) vice-president Prashant Kishor has said that chief ministers of opposition parties have a more significant role in opposing CAA/NRC, his boss and BJP ally Nitish Kumar has also announced that Bihar will not implement NRC.
The government is trying everything to ensure that the whole CAA/NRC affair doesn’t blow up in its face. While there is the UP model of crackdown and ‘revenge’ against the protesters, efforts are also being made to reach out to different sections, including Muslims, to convince them that the CAA does not affect any Indian citizen, while conveniently sidestepping the issue of NRC. Modi even sought to retract from NRC, publicly saying that the government had so far had no discussion on it and contradicting Shah’s repeated assertion that the government would implement NRC come what may, but stopping short of a categorical assurance that the government will not conduct NRC or even use the National Population Register (NPR) as a proxy or first step towards NRC.
While the government’s confusing tactics may throw the Opposition off balance and ensure that they cannot keep the protests alive for long, it seems that the leaderless protests of the youth and civil society at large have taken on a life of their own against the Modi government, not only on the CAA/NRC but on a whole range of issues. Next up on their minds is what the government seeks to do with the Data Protection Bill. It does not look like 2020 is going to be a quiet year politically.