How is 82-year-old Farooq Abdullah, a sitting Lok Sabha MP, such a threat to ‘public safety’ when he has been under house arrest since 5 August 2019 under the draconian Public Safety Act? He can’t address a rally in Kashmir because neither the public nor the government would allow that. He’s a threat only because he can give TV interviews criticising the Narendra Modi government’s dilution of Article 370.
There is speculation that Kashmiri politicians who are being released are signing a bond promising that they will not make any public comments on the “recent events” in the Valley for a period of one year.
That is how PM Modi likes to rule, with an artificial consensus created by curtailing people’s constitutional freedoms. The Modi government wants to be able to say, ‘look, nobody opposed us. Everybody says we did the right thing’.
The Modi government was overjoyed to see that the opposition couldn’t protest much against Kashmir’s altered status, since the Indian public opinion is ready to accept any amount of political repression in the region.
Then came the Ayodhya judgement, sold by both the Supreme Court and the Modi government as a “closure” to the Ram Mandir dispute. It was anything but that. It was the legalisation of the snatching away of a mosque to build a temple. Yet it could be branded as “closure” because nobody was willing to protest against it. Muslims themselves, bitter as they felt about it, didn’t want to labour the point. As the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 showed them, the choice was between losing a mosque and losing their lives.
Once again, Narendra Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah could claim there was across-the-board consensus and, therefore, all was well. Sab changa si.
Breaking the silence
The BJP’s taming of the Indian media and the manipulation of content on social media alone are proof enough that the Modi government isn’t exactly fond of dissent. The party prefers people to just accept the government’s actions as fait accompli. Sweet surrender is ideal. Are the anti-CAA protests helping or hurting the Modi establishment? Before answering that question, we must take a look at this regime’s preference for absence of any opposition to their policies.
To that extent, the protests by students, Muslims, rights groups and opposition parties have hurt the Modi government’s compulsive need to project a universal consensus on its rules. Modi can now no longer say “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas”; he can no longer claim everyone’s participation. These protests have broken a carefully constructed political silence.
The Indian electorate likes to vote for leaders it thinks are in control of things. Before handing over the reins of the state, voters want to be sure the prime ministerial candidate enjoys authority that the top job needs. Narendra Modi understands this impulse of the electorate all too well. People protesting on the streets for days and weeks on end, peacefully or violently, could, in the long run, give the impression that Modi is no longer a leader in control over his subjects. That’s where the impulse to suppress the protests comes from.
The impulse to project absolute control is the root of authoritarianism. This is also what makes authoritarian regimes so brittle. A lone person questioning them is a threat to the artificial sense of peace and “normalcy” that such regimes want to obsessively project.
If the BJP thought that the protests will help it through polarisation, it wouldn’t have been trying to suppress them. It wouldn’t be detaining and arresting protesters. It wouldn’t be carrying out its counter-propaganda. It wouldn’t be doing a tactical retreat on the NRC. It could just unleash Hindutva mobs to make them look like the standard Hindu-Muslim violence, where it would be easier to blame Muslims.
Instead, it chooses the state machinery to silence voices. The extreme violence that we have seen inflicted on Muslims by the UP Police — virtually making the police perform the job of rioters — is to make sure that the community doesn’t dare to come out and protest.
Such is the fear of state repression in Uttar Pradesh today that at Varanasi’s famed Pappu chai shop, a hub of political discussions, no one wants to talk about politics anymore. The chilling effects on freedom of speech and expression are not an accidental by-product of the state clampdown. This silencing was the Modi government’s objective. Mission accomplished.
Large scale protests, peaceful or violent, also hurt Modi’s global image — and all those selfies with world leaders on foreign shores tell us that he cares about his global reputation.
It is for this reason that the Modi government did not, from what foreign diplomats say, prepare in advance to brief other nations about the CAA the way it had about its decisions on Kashmir and the Ayodhya verdict. This, however, is in sharp contrast to the government’s claim that it had reached out to diplomatic missions 10 days “in advance” to inform them about the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Whatever be the truth, this lack of preparation tells you that the Modi government did not expect the scale of these protests. The embarrassment of having to cancel the Modi-Shinzo Abe summit in Guwahati last month is another piece of evidence that the Modi-Shah duet did not anticipate the scale of the anti-CAA protests.
There are other sorrows
Will the anti-CAA protests help the BJP electorally? The answer for state assembly and Lok Sabha elections is different. And the next Lok Sabha election is four and a half years away. If all Modi’s second term is also marked by Hindutva policies and people protesting, it could hurt his pitch to voters in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
State assembly elections are already showing us that the Hindutva agenda is not enough to make the BJP win elections. There have been three state assembly elections — in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand — since Modi’s stupendous Lok Sabha election victory in May 2019. The BJP was ruling all three of these states. It has now lost control of two of them — Maharashtra and Jharkhand. The BJP’s vote share fell drastically in these states, including Haryana, where it had to take support from an inimical regional party (Jannayak Janata Party) to form the government.
The Maharashtra and Haryana elections were contested based on the Modi government’s Kashmir decision. The anti-CAA protests flared up across the country mostly after the citizenship bill was passed in Parliament on 11 December 2019. And not even the prospect of a grand Ram Mandir could save the BJP from losing Jharkhand.
Local factors, you might say. Lok Sabha and state assembly elections are different now more than ever before. Anti-incumbency against sitting chief ministers. Economic slowdown. You can choose whatever post-facto reason that you like the most, but that will only go to show that there are factors other than Hindu-Muslim polarisation that are dear to the Indian voter.
To slightly modify an Urdu poet’s poem currently being dissected by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, ‘aur bhi gham hai zamane mein, Hindutva ke siwa’ (There are sorrows other than Hindutva in our times).
If the BJP can lose Jharkhand despite advancing Hindutva, it could also lose the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The determinant won’t be Hindutva then. The determinant for 2024 would be whether Modi has an equal challenger.
In Jharkhand, the underrated Hemant Soren beat the manoeuvres of the BJP led by Modi and Shah. The same could be repeated at an all-India level in 2024, but who will play the national Hemant Soren?
Views are personal.