The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Indian footprint, measured by the number of state governments that it controls, has been shrinking. Its failure to form a government in Maharashtra and its defeat in Jharkhand has left the political map of India looking considerably less orange than it did in 2017, when the Hindi heartland was a solid bloc of saffron.
But appearances are deceptive: 2019 was not a normal year because the BJP won a resounding parliamentary majority in the general election in May. The pan-Indian dominance of Narendra Modi’s BJP at the level of the Union more than made up for the party’s state assembly losses both before and after the general election. Messrs Modi & Shah might have lost a string of battles but they decisively won the war.
In the normal course, writing a political prospect for the coming year would focus on scheduled state assembly elections on which the fortunes of the government and its opposition might be said to turn. This is hard to do for 2020 because state assembly elections can’t be bellwethers this early in the life of a powerful Union government with the mandate of an absolute majority. These elections can offer pointers to the BJP’s popularity in this or that state but, given the prime minister’s ability to lift the fortunes of his party in general elections, provincial losses can’t be confidently used to make generalisations about the BJP’s national standing.
However, the Delhi elections in February and those in Bihar towards the end of the year remain important for two reasons: first, as a guide to the morale of opposition parties and, secondly, as enablers of, or obstacles to, Modi’s grand project for his second term, the redefinition of Indian citizenship. Despite the prime minister’s disingenuous protestations, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) remains a crucial part of the BJP’s bid to privilege Hindus as India’s “natural” citizens and, en passant, destabilise Muslim citizenship. The cabinet’s sanction of thousands of crores for the compilation of the National Population Register (NPR), designed as the database for the NRC, confirms this. As Prashant Kishor, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s strategist and party colleague, has pointed out, the success of this project depends on the cooperation of state governments. The fewer state governments the BJP controls, the more likely it becomes that NPR/NRC operations might be thwarted or disrupted by recalcitrant provinces.
The election for Delhi’s state assembly is important because, despite being little more than a glorified municipality, Delhi helps make the political weather by virtue of being India’s capital. The BJP is still smarting from the paddling it received in 2015, all the more hurtful for happening in the aftermath of Modi’s great triumph: his first parliamentary majority. Kejriwal’s chutzpah in running against Modi in Varanasi in 2014 gave that state election a personal edge.
Five years later Modi & Shah will be eager to swat this pesky gadfly. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) isn’t the transformative new broom it claimed to be in 2015, but it is, in miniature, the centrist, Hindi-speaking challenger that the opposition needs to conjure up at the pan-Indian level, to give Modi a run for his money in 2024. Kejriwal enters this election somewhat diminished, the maverick boss of a metropolis rather than a charismatic national leader. To use an analogy from another capital, he seems more Ken Livingstone than Boris Johnson. As the AAP’s prospects in Punjab and Haryana have faded, it has become an irritant rather than a threat to the BJP, but to lose to it again in the national capital will be both infuriating and humiliating, so this will be an intensely contested election. Apart from anything else, it will be a test of the AAP’s secular populism based on subsidised utilities and greater spending on public goods like improved government schools and mohalla clinics.
The more significant state assembly election is scheduled late in the year in Bihar. Nitish Kumar has remained chief minister on either side of his short-lived mahagathbandhan with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). It is unlikely that he will desert the BJP so early in its term of office at the Centre. His ambivalence about the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens joint project (he voted for the former and opposed the latter) is a much-diluted version of his “principled” objection to Modi in the lead-up to the 2014 election. It’s his bid to show Bihar’s Muslims a flash of leg because some of the JD(U)’s state assembly seats might turn on how many Muslims vote for him despite his alliance with the BJP. Should the BJP still find him useful enough to run as the face of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, he’s unlikely to sidle up to the RJD if only because without Lalu Prasad Yadav, the RJD is not the force it was. But if Bihar were to go the way of Jharkhand, the BJP will have ceded virtually all its heartland holdings except Uttar Pradesh. Given the dwarf mahagathbandhan assembled by Tejashvi Yadav for the general election, this is unlikely to happen short of a dramatic defection from the dark side by Nitish Kumar.
India’s tanking economy is often talked up as the greatest threat to both Modi’s image as a manager of vikas and his political prospects, but the recent history of the world suggests that economic pain doesn’t create electoral openings for progressive parties. On the contrary, it seems to boost the Bolsanaros of the world. Right-wing populists seem to have a Midas-like gift for turning economic distress into political gold by blaming it on deracinated elites and treacherous minorities. Modi’s second general election campaign was frankly communal and everything the NDA has done since, from Article 370 to the passing of the CAA, seems to suggest that the Modi government is determined to alchemise economic decline into majoritarian rage.
The brutal violence of the UP government’s first response to the anti-CAA protests suggests that the BJP will test drive the NPR/NRC in UP, where it has both a massive majority in the assembly and a chief minister whose instinct for Hindutva extremism and whose appetite for punitive policing allows a prime minister as darkly majoritarian as Modi to appear statesmanlike.
Unlike demonetisation, which Modi owned from the very beginning, he allowed Amit Shah to be the face of the CAA and the NRC. Modi had learnt from his demonetisation experience: he needed distance and deniability from this great experiment in disenfranchising “counterfeit” Muslim citizens in case it backfired on him. This studied distance was why he thought he could affect injured innocence after the protests against the CAA erupted, and declare, against all the evidence, that his government had never approved of (or indeed even considered) an all-India NRC.
This is, of course, untrue: Modi’s government never had any intention of withdrawing the CAA-NRC pincer, because it was too great a prize to be abandoned. For a majoritarian party like the BJP, the opportunity to redefine citizenship and then subject Muslims, especially poor, undocumented Muslims, to the threat of disenfranchised limbo, is like winning a political lottery. The prospect of prolonged turmoil through which non-Muslim (read Hindu) citizens can be persuaded to accept the personal inconvenience of proving their citizenship as the price of a patriotic pan-Indian purge, and through which treacherous aliens are identified, interned and deported, makes CAA-NRC a gamble worth taking. The logic is that, just as the suffering of demonetisation yielded a landslide in UP, the violent churning of an all-India NRC process might deliver pan-Indian Hindu consolidation on an undreamt-of scale.
The licence given to Adityanath to meet anti-CAA protests with massive police violence suggests that Modi will continue to blandly deflect questions about an all-India NRC while using UP both as a shock-and-awe demonstration and as a violent dress rehearsal. Adityanath represents Hindutva’s feral “fringe” translated into high office. He has brought his instinct for vigilante mobilisation to his administration. On his watch UP’s police has effectively become a uniformed vigilante force: it has fired upon demonstrators with impunity, assaulted dissenters, vandalised homes, mosques and vehicles and in general behaved as if it were wearing khaki half-pants instead of uniform trousers. The chief minister has called for “revenge”, has promised the punitive confiscation of property and has allowed the police to storm Aligarh Muslim University in the way a marauding army might reduce a medieval fort.
Now that the Union cabinet has approved thousands of crores for the NPR, it is certain that the work of compiling it will be given the highest priority in UP regardless of the opposition it might meet elsewhere. The NPR is best understood as the database for the NRC. Enrolment in the NPR is no guarantee that a person will be adjudged a citizen in good standing because the NRC’s rules allow the names on its rolls to be challenged by members of the general public. There is a vigilantism built into the NPR-NRC process that fits Adityanath’s regime like a glove. The data-gathering for the NPR has been merged with the operations of the decennial Census and we can be certain that, come April, it will be implemented in UP with the full force of the law (or what passes for the law in that state) behind it. No prizes for guessing what the fate of undocumented Muslims will be in Adityanath’s UP.
The notion of violently churning the Indian population in a higher cause (a Hindu Rashtra) appeals to the BJP’s leadership. Only by subjecting every Indian to the trauma of proving their right to belong can Hindu consolidation be individually experienced as ideology. The CAA, the NPR and the NRC together constitute the BJP’s answer to the Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India campaigns. This menacing form-filling exercise is the Sangh Parivar’s version of a nationalist mass movement. Where anti-colonial nationalists affirmed their Indian birthright by doing time in colonial jails, modern Hindus are being encouraged to pay their tithe to the Hindu nation by stoically suffering the bureaucratic inconvenience of proving their Indianness, the better to reveal the enemy within. By the terms of the CAA, these can only be Muslims. Over the next two years, in the lead-up to the assembly elections of 2022, UP will be both the laboratory and the prototype of Modi’s Hindu Rashtra.
Narendra Modi is not a time server. Despite his narcissism, he serves a cause larger than himself. His life has been dedicated to the holy grail of the Hindu nation and in the CAA-NPR-NRC he has found both the mould and the sieve that will make it possible. Modi sees himself as a man of destiny. By winning a second parliamentary majority he has already staked his claim to being the most consequential prime minister of the republic since Nehru. Now a larger prize beckons. If in his second term in office he can successfully redefine citizenship in the way that Israel has, he will approach the election of 2024 at the head of a putatively Hindu nation. And should he win a third majority, his gift to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 2025, its centenary year, will be the Hindu Rashtra that it was founded to achieve.
To thwart this ambition his political opponents will have to sustain the pan-Indian resistance provoked by the Citizenship Amendment Act with a passion and purpose conspicuously lacking during Modi’s first term. The gallant student protest that sparked this resistance will have to be sustained in 2020 by organised political opposition. The election in Delhi in February should tell us if those who swear allegiance to the First Republic have the stomach for this fight.