Now that the Congress Party and its ex-president Rahul Gandhi have decided that the furore over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is too delicious an opportunity to miss, the country can look forward to the second round of the battle.
The Congress’s decision to jump into battle was only to be expected. The first round of the anti-CAA stir began in Kolkata on December 13 after the Friday prayers when, encouraged by the local Trinamool Congress administration, minority organisations hit the streets and for two days—unchecked by the police—mobs vandalised railway property and burnt buses. The stir was joined by students in Aligarh Muslim University and Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.
The latter was more relevant because it was located in the national capital—the epicentre of Indian journalism. Second, the stir was accompanied by a bout of heavy-handed policing which in turn triggered a wider student response.
The Jamia incidents led to Left and other anti-BJP activists taking to the streets and giving the impression the stir extended way beyond the Muslim community which otherwise made up the numbers in the demonstrations.
In Uttar Pradesh, the stir was essentially a Muslim revolt against the Yogi Adityanath government and the pugnacious Chief Minister responded to the vandalism with harsh punitive measures.
It is just as the stir is petering out that the Congress has jumped into the fray. The reasons are obvious. First, although much of the Muslim mobilisation was carried out through traditional community networks, especially the mosques, the political returns from the stir accrued to either the AlMIM of Asaduddin Owaisi or regional parties such as the TMC in West Bengal or the RJD in Bihar and AAP in Delhi.
The Congress is naturally fearful of losing its Muslim support base by sheer inaction. Second, the anti-CAA stir has unquestionably galvanised the liberal Hindus who were utterly demoralised after the general election of 2019.
The liberals see the anti-CAA stir as an opportunity to thwart the Narendra Modi government at every step, not least for ideological reasons. The Congress, especially since the advent of Rahul Gandhi, view the liberal constituency as its natural turf, influenced as it is undoubtedly is, by developments in the Democratic Party in the US.
The party also pays disproportionate attention to the international fraternity of liberals, a very influential global ecosystem with deep roots in the media, for its sustenance. The response of the government to this stir has so far been patchy and hesitant.
The BJP in West Bengal, for instance, has till date not been able to develop a counter-narrative. It has organised a few demonstrations but it has not succeeded in making any dent in and around the opinion-forming industry located in and around Kolkata.
It has so far not been able to impress upon the electorate that the primary purpose of the CAA was to benefit the Hindu Bengali migrants from Bangladesh.
Of course, this dismal picture does not extend to the rest of the country. The BJP has been active in Assam, Maharashtra and Karnataka in mobilising public opinion and the Yogi administration in UP has won quiet praise for its firm handling of the rioters.
However, overall, the BJP has not succeeded in dispelling the impression that it is on the back foot. The party’s defeat in Jharkhand hasn’t helped matters either.
The BJP government is unlikely to retreat from its commitment to the CAA. On this issue it enjoys the full backing of the RSS which, to its credit, has come out enthusiastically in support.
The Cabinet decision on the National Population Register was also meant to its constituents that the retreat from the design and subsequent notification of the National Register of Citizens is purely tactical. Actually, the government needs to reinforce its commitment to the identification of illegal immigrants but there is a great deal of homework to be done and intellectual energy expended on what will be done with the illegal immigrants once they have been identified. It is quite clear Bangladesh is not going to renege from its position that those India classifies as illegals are not its citizens.
In the New Year the street protests are likely to be confined to the Muslim community. I don’t see too much prospects of the anti-CAA stir escalating into a larger satyagraha against the Modi government.
At the same time, the government has to step in imaginatively to successfully contain the damage to India’s reputation globally by a wave of misinformation centred on the imminent ouster of Muslims from citizenship.
Since many of the liberal critics of the government became hard opponents because they weren’t accommodated in positions of influence, a policy of selectively doling out lollipops may do the trick.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.