After his electoral sweep in May 2019, many called Narendra Modi the new hegemon of India, à la Indira Gandhi. That balloon has been burst by BJP’s thrashing in the Delhi state election. BJP’s strategy of labelling all dissenters as ‘pro-Pakistani’ and ‘tukde tukde’ traitors has flopped. This aimed to sully all students, secularists, Muslims and opposition parties that condemned the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and proposed an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a communal plot against Muslims.
The ploy failed. The women protesting at Shaheen Bagh had blocked a major road, causing huge citizen inconvenience. BJP, supported by some fire-eating TV channels and sections of social media, hoped to win by portraying this as an ‘antinational’ plot supported by nefarious groups including Islamic radicals, and implicitly blessed by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Communal tempers were whipped up to a point where a gunman fired at peaceful protesters. But despite having won 100% of Delhi’s parliamentary seats, on Tuesday, BJP won only 10% of Delhi’s assembly seats.
Lesson: Modi can win national elections, but BJP communalism cannot. Modi should now distance himself from the communal venom that has undercut his ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’ promise after the general election and proved a loser even in narrow electoral terms.
BJP has now been defeated, or lost ground, in 10 state elections: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Delhi. Its control of Indian territory has shrunk from 70% in 2018 to barely 35% today. Far from becoming a hegemon, it is retreating.
India’s social and political atmosphere has been communalised to a degree not seen since the destruction of the Babri Masjid. CAA provides fast-track naturalisation to non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Islamic and Muslim-majority countries but not to Muslims, or those from non-Islamic countries. BJP claims this is a humanitarian way to accelerate naturalisation of those fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and should not be seen as a communal tool.
This claim might just have passed muster a decade ago. But in today’s communal climate, laws have become tools of harassment, not fairness. Schoolchildren acting in an anti-CAA skit were hauled up by police after a complaint, and a teacher and parent have been arrested for sedition. A taxi driver took a passenger to a police station for questioning after hearing the passenger having an anti-CAA phone conversation. The local BJP MLA then gave the taxi driver an award. A BJP minister invited a crowd of supporters to shout that traitors must be shot, with no definition or process to actually identify who is a traitor.
Many TV channels and social media have spewed hate speech, rather than analysis. Many bhakts long to see Muslims incarcerated or worse. The NRC fiasco in Assam — where 1.2 million Hindus, along with 0.6 million Muslims and 0.1 million tribals, failed to produce papers proving their citizenship — proved that India is so weakly documented that a lack of documents is no way to ascertain citizenship.
Yet, home minister Amit Shah has pledged repeatedly to hold an all-India NRC that can trap 80 million undocumented people. In theory, CAA imposes significant conditions to fast-track non-Muslims. But after several arbitrary acts of imprisoning or harassing dissidents of all sorts, people simply do not trust the government to use any legislation fairly. They suspect, with precedents aplenty, that CAA and NRC will be used selectively to trap millions of Muslims and let others off the hook.
This is why people in Kerala formed a 612 km-long human chain in protest, while those in Kolkata formed another one 11 km long. Several states have point-blank refused to implement one or all of CAA, NRC and National Population Register (NPR). The fundamental trust that the Constitution assumes between the Centre and states has broken down. Modi may cry ‘anarchy’, but his party is the architect of that breakdown.
Winning a national election is not enough. The central government must not polarise issues so much that states rebel. BJP has crossed that line. It suddenly looks helpless to implement the pledges it has made to its own core supporters. Without state cooperation, there can be no CAA, NRC or NPR. Far from becoming an all-powerful juggernaut, BJP now looks somewhat lost, foaming at the mouth but helpless.
A party sweeping a general election with 37% of the national vote must not think it has the power to damn all dissenters, misuse the police and tax authorities to harass opponents, and break the consensus on India being a secular democratic State that promises equality and fraternity. Protesters at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere are waving banners and wearing T-shirts bearing the first paragraph of the Constitution that guarantees fundamental freedoms. How outrageous for BJP and its friendly TV channels to say those swearing by the Constitution are unpatriotic anti-nationals!
The Delhi elections should be a wake-up call for BJP. Communal polarisation is a losing strategy. It should reach out to dissenters, formally abandon all-India NRC, and suspend CAA.