The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens have entered a critical moment. Whether they transform India or dissolve into the footnotes of history, will depend on how the movement now expands.
So far, it has been a single-issue movement. It must become multi-issue by spreading to all corners of India, and encompassing all Indians. For it to expand into a larger anti-Narendra Modi government protest, it must include everything from JNU to GDP.
These protests have two main weaknesses. First, it is cast in terms of constitutional rights and secularism, and is not appealing enough to attract broad swathes of Hindu society. Second, the protests lack an organisational backbone. This might have been a source of strength earlier, because it complicated the BJP’s efforts to paint the protests as opposition-manufactured unrest. But this strength can quickly mutate into weakness and imperil its capacity to grow.
In the absence of effective leadership and an army of dedicated workers, these protests risk fizzling out.
Right now, the CAA-NRC protests seem unlikely to affect the popularity of the Narendra Modi government. In fact, as I had argued earlier, they might even lead to more Hindu consolidation behind the BJP.
Designing a successful protest
The only way around both the inherent weaknesses is to enlarge the scope of these protests to include material issues like employment, rural distress and economic slowdown. These are the issues that directly affect the lives of ordinary Hindus.
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The protests have generated tremendous energy, especially among the youth. Lakhs of people have poured into the streets across India – in cities, towns and villages. This invaluable energy now needs to be channelised and strategically utilised to build a broader movement.
Around the core issue of the CAA-NRC, other material issues should be attached to recruit powerful groups such as farmers and workers in the movement.
Political scientist Alfred Evans studied civil society protests in Russia under Vladimir Putin to determine what kind of protests were most successful in gaining support. He found that “protest in defence of abstract, general rights to do not appeal to most citizens”. “Russians are more likely to take part in protests by an organized group if it seeks remedies for concrete problems that directly affect them and their families,” Evans found. The “biggest protests” were on “economic issues that affect people’s everyday lives”.
The JP and Morarji Desai way
Of course, all this is easier said than done.
Attaching too many issues, and diluting the core demands, might easily turn away even the people attending the protests now. So, a successful transition from a single-issue protest to a broader anti-government movement would require incredible political skill to achieve. It would require resolving contradictions, building solidarities, and devising a common platform and strategy. All this requires strong leadership and is way beyond the ability of urban activists, so it would necessarily require political parties to step up from being quiet allies and actively wade into leadership roles. Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati have already stayed away from the prospect of forging a large opposition front against the CAA led by the Congress party.
The nationwide protests preceding Indira Gandhi’s Emergency had these two indispensable characteristics that the current protests lack: strong leadership and organisational strength. They are no equivalents of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) or Morarji Desai, leaders of immense national stature, who transformed student grievances in Gujarat and Bihar into a national movement that seriously challenged the government. Even the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and Chandrashekhar Azad, the only prominent leaders of these protests, have limited appeal that is often overblown. None of them has won any elections (Kanhaiya lost by more than four lakh votes in his hometown Begusarai).
JP and Morarji Desai succeeded in expanding their movement because they skilfully tapped into latent anger over economic issues: unemployment and inflation. They successfully convinced a broad cross-section of Indians that the removal of Indira Gandhi was the only solution for hunger, poverty and unemployment. The RSS and socialists actively backed these protests, and many of the student protesters were from the ABVP. Workers were effectively mobilised by leaders like George Fernandes, who led a devastating 22-day nationwide Railway strike.
Time for Congress to shake off dust
The recent Bharat Bandh strike backed by 10 central trade union organisations received a tepid response. Outside of Kerala and Bengal, few would have been even aware of the strike. Even though the Congress-affiliated INTUC was among the participants, Rahul Gandhi merely tweeted his support. A more effective leadership can help coalesce this disparate anger of workers, farmers and students and meld it into a single anti-government movement. With that leadership absent, these occasional outbursts do little to damage the Narendra Modi government.
To be clear, single-issue movements can be disastrous for the government. The anti-corruption movement of 2011 was ruinous for the credibility of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, but anti-corruption was a more politically potent issue than the NRC-CAA. Unlike the feckless UPA of that time, the Modi government has got a powerful counter-narrative, framed in terms of hard-line nationalism, and a mass leader.
The fact that Sonia Gandhi has signalled a more assertive Congress role in the protests is a welcome sign. “Congress Working Committee must categorically declare that millions of Congress workers will stand shoulder to shoulder with people of India in their struggle for equality, justice and dignity,” Sonia Gandhi said. But this is not remotely sufficient.
The Congress has been repeatedly promising nationwide protests on the economy since November. ‘Promising’ is the keyword here. They now have the opportunity to bandwagon on these protests, and transform them into a serious political challenge for the Modi government. The moment calls for a national leadership like that provided by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal.
In all likelihood, the Supreme Court won’t say anything significant in its 22 January hearing on the CAA-NRC, and postpone the matter to the next hearing. Kashmir provides a sobering template in this regard.
The Modi government probably will not relent on either the CAA or the NPR. The protests still have momentum now, but setbacks, crackdowns and the setting in of fatigue are powerful headwinds. The protests have almost stopped in Uttar Pradesh. Before long, either a new course of action will have to be forged, or we might witness this newly released energy dissipate.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.
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