This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has weighed in twice on the continuing protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the National Register of Citizens, even as two foreign nationals were picked up and questioned for participating in these protests in Chennai and Kochi.
For the first time since he came to power in 2014, Modi seems concerned about the challenge to the BJP. As many as 10 Congress and non-BJP governments, led by Punjab’s Amarinder Singh, have said they won’t implement the National Population Register (NPR) at the state level, because data generated by the NPR will become the basis for the nationwide NRC.
As he backtracked on the BJP’s stated commitment to implement the NRC, even in the party manifesto, at the Ramlila Maidan, Modi denied the NRC had ever been discussed by his Cabinet since he came to power. The opposition, he said, was spreading “misinformation” and “lies”.
But a scan of recent Modi’s speeches has revealed the opposite. At an election rally on 24 April in Ranaghat in West Bengal’s Nadia district, Modi not only spoke about the need to implement the NRC and the CAA, but also made a clear linkage between the two.
“We will take an important step when we win, related to Citizenship Act. Last time around, the TMC, the Congress and the Communists stopped the amendment, they will lose now. The people will make them lose. And we will pass that law in Parliament,” Modi says in the video.
“Alongside,” he added, “work on the NRC will also be started. So that the people of West Bengal will be saved from illegal infiltrators.”
For the time being, in the face of the student protests, Modi and Amit Shah seem to have backed off on implementing the party manifesto’s section on “combating infiltration.”
The section states that “there has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration…We will expeditiously complete the National Register of Citizens process in these areas on priority. In future, we will implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country.”
Shah’s home ministry also seems to have other ideas. Apart from insisting that the NPR will be updated, which even the UPA government under Manmohan Singh had done, the two foreign nationals have been asked to leave the country for participating in anti-CAA protests.
For the first time as well, small protests in highly controlled societies in the Gulf are also taking place. In Dubai, an anti-CAA protest was allowed on 24 December – you can see the video here. Only in August, the UAE awarded Modi the ‘Order of Zayed,’ its highest civilian honour.
Even in Singapore, an Indian national was picked up for protesting against the CAA.
Universities in Europe and in the US have witnessed several anti-CAA protests these past couple of weeks, although their capitals have officially kept mum.
But diplomatic sources in Delhi have told me that they are increasingly concerned about the trampling of India’s democratic tradition and are keeping a close eye on the evolving situation in the country.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s cancelling an appointment with the US Congress is believed to have not gone down well with the Americans.
As the PM heads into the Budget season, he will have to scramble to balance the demand to open up the economy to kickstart growth with demands to roll back measures like the NRC and the CAA.
Many say that Modi and Amit Shah are using these measures to keep the fires of Hindu-Muslim polarisation alive. But along with a damaged economy, several NDA allies like the Akali Dal are also not happy with the CAA. Certainly, the time has come for Modi to take some hard decisions.