The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is nothing but a mere symbolic gesture. It will help the party score political points with its key constituency – Hindus. But the bill will be rendered largely meaningless because the BJP does not really plan to back it up with the pan-India National Register of Citizens or NRC. At least not yet.
The bill — dangerous and perverse — is the BJP’s instrument to reassure its core base about its commitment to the cause of Hindutva. Seeking to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Citizenship Bill will have little concrete meaning unless an actual list of those suspected to be illegal immigrants is drawn up.
All talk and no action
For the BJP and its core voter base, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill’s fundamental purpose is to establish the division between the Muslim and the Hindu refugee. And that message can be amplified only through a countrywide NRC, which the BJP is unlikely to push for anytime soon. The party knows that it is more alluring to keep talking about it rather than actually carrying out a complex and double-edged process, which can very well backfire.
Moreover, it also helps to ensure you that while you give your voter something to chew on, you hold some back so you can stagger your Hindutva milestones — CAB now, NRC later.
Unlike in Assam where updating the NRC had its genesis in the 1985 Assam Accord, for a pan-India NRC, a legislation with a uniform cut-off date along with other defined contours will be required. If the Modi government is so confident of carrying out this exercise, it could well have brought in a bill in the Winter session of Parliament for it along with the Citizenship Bill to ensure a 360-degree implementation of what it is really promising.
This is a well-thought-out strategy by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah leadership. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has been among the core Hindutva agendas of the BJP besides the Ram temple in Ayodhya, dilution of Article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Uniform Civil Code. The first two sorted, the CAB is the obvious next step, something BJP’s core base would expect.
But the BJP’s top two are aware enough to know that the CAB on its own might not have the desired effect without making the promise of accepting Hindu refugees and throwing the Muslim ones out. Hence, the constant need to go shrill on the pan-India NRC rhetoric, and yet remain ambiguous about it. No mention of the roadmap, the modalities or any other specific detail, just a vague promise of implementing it by 2024, conveniently before the next Lok Sabha election. It also gives the BJP another easy poll plank — vote us back to help us finish our unfinished work of listing out all those ‘ infiltrators ‘ who should be perhaps thrown into the Bay of Bengal.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is relatively easier — the framework is ready, the structure is in place and the BJP has already tested the waters in its last term.
Just look at the kind of activity on both fronts. For the Citizenship Bill, the Modi government has been chasing it since its last term — bringing it to Parliament twice, holding many consultations and talks, attempting back-channel negotiations and also introducing new provisions to try and pacify the northeast.
For the nationwide NRC, on the other hand, there has been no actual movement, consultations or effort — just a sea of provocative semantics. This, meanwhile, isn’t without reason.
The CAB-NRC conundrum
The BJP has seen how utterly difficult and tricky the NRC can be after its rocky implementation in Assam. A mere 19 lakh people — less than six per cent of all those who applied — were left out, of which several lakh are actually Hindus. The BJP had little option but to say it rejects this NRC, given how inconvenient the outcome was for it.
Even more important, however, is what the NRC did to the state. It brought Assam to a standstill, ensured all resources were diverted to this process and decelerated all other crucial work, including key government schemes. Can the Modi government even afford an exercise of this magnitude and nature across the country?
And what should worry the BJP even more is how draining this is on people, requiring them to dig out decades-old documents and run from pillar to post — as trite as that might sound — to prove they are ‘genuine’ citizens of India. At least, Assam had a context — a long ethnic conflict that saw the demand for identifying ‘outsiders’ grow organically. How will Narendra Modi and Amit Shah make it palatable for the rest of the country to go through this inconvenience and ask all Indians, including Hindus, to prove their ‘Indian-ness’?
What the BJP is doing right now isn’t a bad idea as far as its politics is concerned: dredge up the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and keep talking about the NRC to make the former seem more meaningful and effective, while not actually having to go through the trouble of risking the latter just yet.
This is a Citizenship Bill minus actual NRC implementation gamble for now, and one the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo thinks it can win purely on symbolism.