Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is BJP’s new populist weapon

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantDec 13, 2019 | 12:36

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is BJP’s new populist weapon

The unstated objective of the CAB is to polarise the Hindu electorate by leaving persecuted Muslim refugee-migrants out of its warm citizenship embrace.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 has two clear objectives, one stated, the other unstated. The stated objective is to offer citizenship rights to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians who faced persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and arrived in India as illegal refugee-migrants before December 31, 2014. The unstated objective is to polarise the Hindu electorate by leaving persecuted Muslim refugee-migrants out of CAB’s warm citizenship embrace.


Demonstrators at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

Defining statistics

CAB is not aimed at punishing India’s 200 million resident Muslims who will retain full Constitutional rights. It is aimed squarely at India’s one billion Hindus. Beneath the BJP’s emollient arguments in Parliament on CAB lies electoral ambition. CAB and the National Register of Citizens (NCR) are electoral weapons designed for use in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The Ram Mandir, Triple Talaq and Article 370 issues have run their course. The BJP now faces a problem. To ensure victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha poll — and in over a dozen state assembly elections before that — it needs to breach the 40% vote share mark on its own.

Its allies are getting restless. Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), despite backing the government on CAB, could well re-examine its future options. Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP which also voted for CAB, is upset about the BJP’s intransigence over seat-sharing in Jharkhand. The Akalis too are unhappy with the cavalier treatment meted out to them.

The BJP has largely given up on India’s 20% non-Hindu electorate. After CAB becomes law, Muslims will vote even more unitedly and fiercely against it. The BJP, therefore, needs to win half the 80% Hindu vote to retain power at the Centre after 2024. It won 37% in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.


But economic distress, especially in rural India, is beginning to erode the BJP’s rainbow coalition of Brahmins, Thakurs, OBCs and EBCs. The natural fractiousness of Hindu society makes the BJP’s job doubly difficult, notwithstanding its sweeping victory in this week’s Karnataka by-elections. Muscular nationalism helped the BJP win nearly half the 80% Hindu vote in the 2019 general election. But as the results of subsequent assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana have shown, routine polarisation can have diminishing returns.

CAB and NRC are shock therapies designed to jolt the Hindu electorate out of its comfort zone now that Article 370 and Ayodhya have been won. CAB and NRC (which, conveniently, will drag on till 2024) are the new lightning rod conductors. Though CAB was in the BJP manifesto in 2014 and 2019, it has tactically chosen to weaponise it now.

Nationalist politics

CAB is certain to face legal scrutiny. Will that lead to a Constitutional crisis between the government and the judiciary?

In a similar clash in 1985-86, the Rajiv Gandhi government used its brute parliamentary majority to override the Supreme Court’s thoughtful secular verdict on Shah Bano by passing the brazenly communal Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 that nullified the apex court’s order. This regressive Act restricted payment of maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman by her former husband to just 90 days following the divorce — known as the period of iddat in Islamic law — contravening India’s secular penal code.


Will the Narendra Modi government use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to do the same if the Supreme Court strikes down CAB as ultra vires of the Constitution? While it may be morally questionable, CAB is in fact not ultra vires of Articles 15 and 21 of the Indian Constitution which protect the rights of Indian citizens. The Articles do not protect the rights of those seeking Indian citizenship.

The BJP though must tread carefully. It has long relied on a deep well of resentment against minorities that resides within large sections of the Hindu majority. That resentment was bottled up for decades by Nehruvian secularism which seemed to favour Muslims over Hindus on tinderbox issues like personal law. The simmering resentment found an outlet in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019, leading to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victories. Majoritarian politics became mainstream, nationalism its calling card.

Sense of grievance

But nationalism, as I’ve pointed out in the past, is a double-edged sword. The Indian Right errs by conflating nationalism with Hindu nationalism. In its truest form nationalism is inclusive. It protects every Indian: Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Parsi; rich or poor; Brahmin or Dalit; Sunni or Shia; male, female or transgender. Nationalism embraces diversity. It promotes the country’s national interest and protects the rights of minorities by empowering, not appeasing, them.

The historical sense of victimhood among Hindus has an expiry date. Most are deeply religious. However, their priority today is jobs, economic advancement, social mobility and modernity. The question for the BJP, as it balances the likely diminishing returns of polarisation with electoral compulsions, is this: after CAB and NRC, what next? The deep well of grievance feeding majority resentment could soon run dry. The focus then must return to first principles: economic growth for every Indian.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: December 13, 2019 | 12:41
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