The protests against the CAA-NRC have had many salutary effects, but one thing that is consistently overstated is its effect on India’s domestic politics. For many who are singing revolutionary songs, it is tantalising to say this is the beginning of the end. But there is no evidence that the Narendra Modi government’s stand on citizenship is unpopular, barring certain states, or that the BJP is indeed losing support over it.
So far, the only successful outcome of the protests is the way Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to retreat on the rhetoric of a nationwide NRC. But even here, the government is still zealously holding on to the issue of “illegal immigration”, which looks like the next big ‘core issue’ of the Sangh Parivar, now to be pursued through the route of National Population Register (NPR).
The widespread protests will not be a turning point for the Modi-Amit Shah government until ‘ordinary Hindus’ join it in large numbers. The base of the CAA-NRC-NPR protests remains confined to the groups that were already opposed to the BJP government: the largest number has been provided by Muslims, along with liberal middle-class professionals, Leftists, and dissenting students.
The surprising participation is of a number of ‘apolitical’ (or politically passive) young people, who might have largely been silent over the past few years. Now, they are speaking out on social media, attending protests, and joining the camp of active, politically engaged dissenters. But even among these, only a handful, if that, would have voted for the BJP in 2019.
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BJP stand agreeable to Hindus
Outside metropolitan areas such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and outside of states such as West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, these have overwhelmingly been Muslim protests. In the cities of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have almost exclusively been led by Muslims. This is not ‘wrong’ given how it is Muslims who will be the most affected by the Islamophobic and discriminatory nature of the CAA. But it is debatable how effective these protests will be in altering the massive popularity that the BJP enjoys.
In the heartland states of the north and the west, which is the base of the BJP, it is likely that the ruling party’s positions on CAA, NRC and now NPR are indeed popular.
The headline of a report by The Indian Express’ Ravish Tiwari succinctly summarised the findings: “On the ground in Uttar Pradesh, protest divide along religion, not politics”. The report found that “across the constituencies of Baghpat, Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Sambhal and Rampur, many Hindus who voted for Opposition parties during the Lok Sabha elections support the government’s citizenship move”. It stated that the “ruling establishment’s arguments against the protests and for the crackdown find resonance among Hindus in this region” including people from backward caste communities.
It is not hard to understand why. The BJP’s position ticks a lot of boxes that deeply resonate with Indians. First, a bottomless appetite for ‘cleaning up the country’ rhetoric, which was also the reason why demonetisation in 2016 proved so popular. Despite the havoc it wrecked in their daily lives, it was more than made up by resentment towards the “rich and the corrupt”. Second, the rhetoric of cleaning up India of the ‘outsiders’ taps into an equally strong resentment towards “illegal immigrants”, especially because it is invoked in terms of Muslims.
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Constitutionalism doesn’t sell
As the last five years have showed, arguments that PM Modi is violating the Constitution find little traction on the ground. Ordinary Indians don’t seem to particularly care about specific Articles of the Constitution, neither does adherence to constitutional principles makes for an emotionally captivating rhetoric. No matter what legal nit-picking the opposition does with nuanced arguments, Modi controls the narrative.
On the other hand, there are emotionally incendiary visuals, both real and doctored, of ‘rioting Muslims’ from small towns of Uttar Pradesh. These visuals are being, and shall be, incessantly played in the media that the BJP mostly controls, and pinged across millions of WhatsApp groups. The BJP’s propaganda machinery is incredibly powerful, and it won’t stop until those images are indelibly linked with the protests in popular consciousness. It is very likely that Chief Minister Adityanath government’s strongman posturing, from the brutal police action on protesters to seizing people’s properties, is being silently applauded by the Hindu majority, as The Indian Express report attested.
Some NRC-CAA protests have been massive, such as the one at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai that perhaps drew an excess of one lakh people. But to extrapolate from these protests and conclude that the Modi government is losing support would be exceedingly naive.
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Support of ‘silent majority’
Populist leaders like Narendra Modi rely on the support of the “silent majority”, a term former US President Richard Nixon popularised during a presidential address in 1969. In the backdrop of the growing anti-Vietnam war protests, he invoked those “ordinary” Americans who were opposed to the protests and also did not partake in the counterculture, whose voice was being drowned by the loud protesters. This proved to have a powerful appeal, in spite of the tumult of the late 1960s, with the Black Power movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Martin Luther King Jr assassination riots.
Nixon highlighted the underlying contrast between the views of the “silent majority” and the views of a vocal minority composed of mediapersons, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and liberals. This was smart because polls showed that two-thirds of Americans were opposed to the anti-war protests, while also hoping for the Vietnam War to end quickly. The appeal to “patriotic Americans” to not let those opposed to the United States win, was therefore a politically winning strategy, especially among older and working-class voters. In 1972, Nixon won a landslide re-election, winning 49 out of 50 states, vindicating his “silent majority” strategy of stitching a cross-class White coalition.
BJP is on track
It would be strange to expect a country that gave the BJP two consecutive resounding majorities to suddenly change course over secularism or on the constitutional rights of Muslims. It is therefore likely that the ‘silent majority’ of Indians stand with the Modi government on citizenship issues, and that the BJP would win an equally resounding victory if the elections were held today. The BJP might have to make a few tactical retreats for PR purposes, or to assuage the international media, but its political strategy likely remains a winning one.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.