Sunday, 22 May, 2022
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Citizenship law shows tension between BJP’s Hindutva and Modi govt’s economic goal

Having an environment that is not disrupted by social and political tensions is important for business, both domestic and foreign.

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The ruling BJP’s assertion that it can guarantee India’s development better than its opponents has been a very important part of its claim to provide good government. As a result, the ruling party is vulnerable to charges that it has mismanaged India’s economy. The gap between assertion and reality has been made stark by the marked growth slowdown that the Indian economy has recently experienced, and the Narendra Modi government’s attendant failure to generate employment.

The BJP has of late prominently addressed a non-economic agenda – of advancing the Hindu majoritarian imprint upon the state – either due to its fundamental commitments or as an opportunistic political response to the weakening of the economy under its watch. The BJP has done so even at the risk of deepening sectarian and other divisions, which now stands realised with India shaken by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. However, a direct conflict exists between these two aspects of its agenda – the economic (which it loudly proclaims but shows mixed commitment towards) and the non-economic (which it does not announce but pursues assiduously).

Former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan was right to emphasise the idea that intolerance is also a threat to prosperity. For a period, India was branded as the world’s “fastest growing major economy”. This is a position which it has in recent years traded back and forth with China. But it was more securely the fastest growing large democracy, given that China was no competition there. This is not just a statement of political values, but also a signal to investors that in India, fissures, divisions, and tensions can and will be handled flexibly, providing the possibility of greater stability over the long run. 

It is this aspect of India that has allowed it to maintain and consolidate a nation-state over seven decades. Indian capitalists may look at China with admiration, but its inability to guarantee that divisions within the country will be handled in a flexible way remains a source of doubts about its economic future. Political tensions may not have a first-order effect on economic outcomes in the short run but in the longer term, they create the possibility of potentially devastating disruptions, even if their likelihood is difficult or impossible to judge.

This may be seen from various perspectives. The possibilities for domestic commerce and investment depend on peace, which, in turn, depends on more than just electoral majorities and deployment of the police and the military. Having an environment that is not disrupted by social and political tensions and the costs they create – whether those that arise from an individual having to commute to work in fear or from threats to the security of property – is important for business, both domestic and foreign. Foreign investors may also be concerned about reputational issues. As much as they have a well-established willingness to put aside such concerns in search of profits, these must then be higher so as to justify investment.

It cannot be denied that such political concerns are a factor, and may, if mishandled, become a bigger one in determining the level of investment. Moreover, India continues to depend on foreign investors for its lifeblood – masked by its high foreign exchange reserves – because it can only finance its current account deficit through ongoing inflows from them. There are other direct fiscal costs, perhaps sizable, which arise from expenditure on repression.

Also read: The global wildfire of street protests has finally reached India

Pushing the political vision

The Citizenship Amendment Act is one of the many measures aimed at incrementally advancing the BJP’s political vision, that of Hindutva, but which directly risks the other side of the Modi government’s proclaimed agenda. It is possible that the government had not even recognised that there exists a tension between these two sides of its opposing goals, but it is certain that they did not give importance to it. The unnecessary prioritisation of the citizenship law showed a mischievous interest in stoking social divisions. 

If the intent was to actually offer refuge to persecuted minorities in neighbouring countries, then this could have been handled through a variety of administrative measures, which did not necessarily require new legislation. Many refugees deemed to be benefitted by the amended Citizenship Act could have had their existing residence or citizenship applications eased more simply by changing procedures, which have until now impeded them. Others who are not going to be benefitted by the law have similarly been affected by the refusal to entertain their citizenship applications, rather than by the impossibility of doing so, and as a result, had called for an easing of government procedures rather than new legislation.

In practice, many countries around the world admit refugees after determining their status individually. This determination takes into consideration the threats experienced by the group to which the individual belongs. India has used this approach in the past to incorporate earlier waves of migrants as long-term residents or even as citizens (both, in the case of Tibetans). 

A softer approach of this kind (even if implemented in blatantly sectarian form as the Modi government seems to wish to do) would have made protection feasible on a selective basis without generating the strong reaction that the government has provoked by changing the law to incorporate its explicit preference for specific religious communities. The first best would have been to develop a principled and comprehensive refugee policy, which India has lacked, but the Modi government has not even mentioned this possibility, let alone advanced it.

Also read: Violence over citizenship law ebbs in Bengal, but Mamata-Governor war of words continues

Risking the development concerns 

The government seems to have preferred to offer a provocation, perhaps because it seemed an opportunity to show political strength to supporters and opponents alike, to attempt to shore up its existing vote base and to create new ones. The safeguarding of economic prosperity and stability do not provide the reason for rejecting such a policy, since there are deep-seated political and moral reasons to do so in any case. Rather, the choice to advance the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) shows the ultimate indifference of the Modi government to taking risks with the economic and developmental concerns that it supposedly values, and its eagerness instead to pursue a communal agenda. It is hard to take any other view, given the existence of the unexplored alternatives mentioned above.

The reaction to the Modi government’s action has been more ferocious than expected. This may be because the new citizenship law has made many more people feel threatened than are nominally affected (especially since the law has been paired with the possibility of a nationwide National Register of Citizens). Students and others also rightly see an affront to basic constitutional and civil values. The Modi government’s actions have, therefore, begun to risk the political frame for economic stability and prosperity. A political strategy that is so indifferent to the feelings of minorities, even as it claims to act on behalf of other minorities, is mischievous, to say the least. It does not show the seriousness required to balance considerations and make the trade-offs that are necessary for a country’s development.

Arguably, in politics, almost every action has a reaction, which depends in part on the psychology that exists, or is produced. The tearing up of India’s syncretistic civilisational fabric, in favour of an invented idea of political Hinduism, which dispenses with its rich and humane inheritances, may be a working strategy to keep power, but it is not a strategy for good governance, let alone for Ram Rajya. In fact, it looks as if the Modi government’s actions subvert its own slogans by giving rise, in specific areas, to minimum governance and maximum government. The sheer quantity of labour that will be required to establish the proposed NRC on a national scale, as well as the potential for devastating outcomes that it may have, including for unintended “collateral damage“, by falsely denying people their rights, could not be a more resounding instance of ‘solving’ a non-problem by creating a new and larger one.

Stoking conflict to create the permanent divisions that fuel a sectarian political movement is an old idea in politics, which has been theorised by various political philosophers (such as Carl Schmitt) but it is the opposite of what is needed to bring about ‘development for all and with all’, let alone with everyone’s trust (‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’). It is hardly surprising that a government that is creative in generating slogans lacks equal skill when it comes to weighing the real concerns of governance. A different mentality altogether is required for that. Almost 60 years ago, American journalist Selig Harrison wrote of India’s most dangerous decades, for which he was later thoroughly dismissed. But are those dangerous decades yet to come?

The author is an Economist at the New School for Social Research, New York. Follow him on twitter @sanjaygreddy. Views are personal.

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  1. Whether a heightened pursuit of a sectarian agenda is being done out of the deepest ideological conviction or as a cynical ploy to mask profound economic failures is a matter of judgment. However, to citizens who are pragmatic and not driven by partisan passions, we seem to be getting the worst of both worlds. Something like the trains running late – or not running at all – during the emergency. The ferocity and geographical spread of the protests is a powerful warning shot across the bows.

    • Ashokji, you seem to have hit the nail on the head as usual. Some Indians like us, who do not vote on basis of religious or caste preferences seem to have lost out big time. Now there is no talk of “ache din” or “good governance” We are stuck with take it or lump it. After the current PM, the next in line – namely Mr Shah and the current UP CM make even this dispensation seem tame by comparison. We are stuck with poor economic performance which is going to affect the way we educate our children and manage our retirement. I envisage us getting forever shown the bogey of militant minorities or poor law and order to keep voting for this lot, whatever may be its real life performance. . In short, we have become a captive and fearful votebank who have been conditioned to think that there is no alternative. In Shekhar Gupta’s words – we have become “Modi’s Muslims”

  2. This economist seems to be a new addition to ThePrint’s team of sickulars! First, what is he writing against BJP as its political agenda can be easily turned around and Congress can be accused of the doing the opposite – minority appeasement, caste politics etc. So attacking BJP for taking steps to achieve its political agenda, on which it has got a majority in Lok Sabha is non sense. One can disagree with it but vote for Congress next time around! Second, CAA is not against Indian citizens, whether belonging to minority or not. It is for granting citizenship status in an accelerated manner to the religiously persecuted minorities in neighboring countries who entered India up to Dec 2014 to correct historical injustice. For everyone else, there is a routine process to seek asylum or citizenship under Citizenship Act.

    As regards NRC, the author has not bothered to read the FAQs issued by Government of India a day before! In any case, NRC process has not been announced as yet. Further, both CAA and NRC process will tested in Supreme Court. So there is no reason to fear that BJP can do whatever it pleases as it has a brute majority in Parliament. Beyond this, one can certainly have political opposition to CAA and NRC. So why not say clearly how Congress and others propose to deal with illegal migrants of all kinds and that they will pass a law that will allow any one persecuted anywhere in the world on any ground (gender, religion, ethnicity, political views etc) be allowed a free entry into India? It is one thing to oppose what BJP is doing now but what is your proposal to deal with the issues that BJP is trying to solve? Come clear on that first.

    And let us not delude that we should go serially- first sort out economic problems and then go after social issues! This is as stupid as telling a child- do well in maths first and then you can go after sports! Every economy is in continuous process of up and down and every time measures are needed to sort out its problems at that level of growth. Chinese, US, Europe – despite being huge economies, all have pressing economic problems just as we have though the nature of problems and their intensity differ. Modi govt is taking steps to sort the issues. It may be successful or not but that can not stop it from taking decisions in other areas.

    Does author support Referendum on CAA and NRC under UN supervision? Or why not Mamata resign now and call for fresh elections in West Bengal as it is West Bengal that is at the heart of the CAA and NRC? That election can set the future course of the country. so why not do it and bury the ghost of BJP once for all?!

    • More of the BJP line. The author is absolutely correct in their opinion of what the government is doing and all you are doing is spreading the BJP propaganda!

  3. Mr Writer tell me how CAA is towards HINDUTVA.. u guys simply want to write against gvt and get fame.. u damn seculars

    • I will tell you but you already know. The CAA provides for religious citizenship of all but Muslims! That is the meaning of Hindutva. Doing everything they can to stifle Muslims!

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