The Standoff Between India’s Government and Its Protesters Can Only Be Broken by Elections

Narendra Modi’s government thinks an “us and them” narrative will win it state elections—but that plan may backfire.

Protestors gather to demonstrate against India's new citizenship law.
Protestors gather to demonstrate against India's new citizenship law in Mangalore, India, on Jan. 15, 2020. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The images of protest and violence coming out of India in the past several weeks cannot be pleasing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. In cities across India, tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating against an amendment to the country’s citizenship law, which was passed by parliament on Dec. 11, 2019, and is seen as discriminatory toward Muslims. While there are Muslims among the protesters, the majority are non-Muslims, including many who do not usually take part in political protests. This is by far the largest pan-Indian protest that the Modi government, more than six months into its second term, has faced. The protests have been met with a strong state response, including the deployment of troops, internet blackouts, and the imposition of curfews. The Indian Supreme Court has also begun hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the validity of the citizenship law amendment.

The Modi government, when it rammed through the new citizenship law, had most likely not foreseen the kind of response that it would evoke. Otherwise, a government that is usually adept at media management would not have been scrambling for a coherent response in the wake of the protests. But once the government realized that its latest move had not gone over well with many people, it chose not to back down. At one level, it sought to obfuscate the issue. Though several BJP leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, had publicly and on the floor of parliament linked the new citizenship law with the controversial National Register of Citizens, Modi in a speech this past Dec. 22 claimed that it was never the government’s intention to link the two.Once the government realized that its latest move had not gone over well with many people, it chose not to back down.

At the same time, both Modi and Shah have vigorously defended the new citizenship law. Indeed, they took the tack of labeling the protesters as anti-national. While this might seem paradoxical and counterintuitive, the government’s digging in was entirely consistent with its view that divisive strategies and its Hindu majoritarian project pay political dividends. While the BJP’s politics is often seen as driven by religion, more often than not it seeks to play up the division between its supporters and opponents on the issue of nationalism. The Modi government’s chosen strategy in the face of any kind of protests or opposition is to construct an “us versus them,” “national versus anti-national” narrative. This strategy is no different from that followed by populist leaders elsewhere, and the BJP government’s reaction to the protests against the citizenship law was similar. The response has been explained by the analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta as a way for the government to legitimize itself by constantly “inventing enemies.”

The pernicious phrase “tukde tukde gang” (the gang that wants to break up the country)—which the government routinely uses to tar its opponents and critics—perhaps best sums up this strategy. It was first used in 2016 to describe students at New Delhi’s elite and left-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University who had gathered to mark the anniversary of the death of a man accused in a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. Some of the students were charged with sedition under a colonial-era law, and the government soon began employing the phrase “tukde tukde gang” to label anyone who criticized it. Modi used it regularly in the 2019 national elections to tarnish the Indian National Congress party. Ever since, it has regularly popped up in the BJP’s political discourse, never more so than in the context of the citizenship law. While defending the new citizenship law, Shah at a public rally this past Dec. 26 said it is time to punish the “tukde tukde gang” for its protests and attempts to fan unrest. This line has been parroted by other senior ministers and has informed the government’s policy of clamping down on protesters—many of whom do not even belong to political parties—and isolating them. It was even used by a senior minister to describe a Bollywood superstar when she stood in solidarity with a group of Jawaharlal Nehru University students protesting egregious violence inside their campus. This, despite most of the protests being largely peaceful and consisting of sit-ins, readings from the constitution, and singing of the national anthem.The government’s strong-arm tactics are linked to the inability of both Modi and Shah to digest criticism.

The government’s strong-arm tactics are linked to the inability of both Modi and Shah to digest criticism. This partly stems from both leaders having always operated in a situation, first in the state of Gujarat and now at the national level, where their party has enjoyed a large majority. This has contributed to an intolerance toward protests and dissent and a proclivity to stamp them out rather hear out the other side. It has also caused an inability to work with partners, which was demonstrated starkly in Maharashtra, where the BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, deserted it in late 2019 to form the state government with opposition parties. The intolerance for protests and the hubris that accompanies untrammeled power have become more pronounced in Modi’s second term after he won reelection last year with a greater majority than in 2014.

The question then is what happens next in the standoff between India’s protesters and its government. There are arguably four important takeaways. One, this is the first time that the country’s youth have come out in such large numbers to voice their discontent against the Modi government. What a faltering economy and growing joblessness could not do has been achieved by the citizenship law and the government’s repression. While this was largely a spontaneous reaction and one that will be difficult to sustain, it is still significant. In both the 2014 and 2019 national elections, there is evidence to suggest that young voters backed Modi in large numbers. The disillusionment of a section of the urban youth cannot be good news for the BJP.

Two, this is also the first time that Muslims, who have largely been pushed around during Modi’s tenure, have found a voice. While there is no party or leader who represents Muslims at the national level, that Muslims came out in large numbers to protest is noteworthy, in part because it could potentially galvanize them against the BJP in a sustained manner.

Three, the government’s formulation of and response to the citizenship law have brought to the foreground the role of Shah in domestic policy. Indeed, there is a consensus that Shah has been heard and seen far more than Modi in the aftermath of the passage of the new citizenship law. It has been Shah, and not Modi, who has been the face of the most contentious decisions in Modi’s second term, including the decision to scrap Kashmir’s special status.The protests have tarnished the government’s image and India’s democratic credentials abroad.

Finally, the protests have tarnished the government’s image and India’s democratic credentials abroad. For a government that has been so careful about optics in its first term, the past few weeks have been disastrous. Neighbors and allies, such as Bangladesh, have also been alienated by the tone and content of the citizenship law, which implies that non-Muslim minorities have been mistreated by these neighboring countries. One prominent commentator from Nepal has described the new law as an “act of geopolitical folly.”

Despite the significance of the protests, it might not signal a change in the way the Modi government operates. The government believes divisive politics pays electoral dividends and that the protesters comprise those who might not have voted for the BJP. The faith in such politics is yet to be shaken despite electoral setbacks in several state elections, partly because the BJP feels that this strategy delivered it an overwhelming mandate in 2019. Unlike in 2014, when Modi had campaigned on a promise of vikas, or development, the 2019 national election was decisively influenced by a surge of nationalist fervor in the wake of a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir and New Delhi’s subsequent airstrike on Pakistan in response. That’s why election reversals in Maharashtra or Jharkhand, where the BJP’s campaign focused heavily on both Modi and national issues such as Kashmir and the new citizenship law, have not triggered a course-correction. The second reason why the BJP has resorted to fulfilling its cultural and religious program in Modi’s second term is its belief that this moment represents the best opportunity of fulfilling its Hindu majoritarian agenda. A strong majority in the lower house of parliament and favorable numbers in the upper house have allowed the Modi government to push through some of the BJP’s most contentious and divisive policies. That Modi has done so despite a dramatic economic slowdown is the result of his belief that a significant number of Indians views his agenda favorably, which is itself a reflection of a discernible Hindu nationalist shift in India’s electorate. After all, the BJP’s campaign manifesto contained promises to enact the citizenship law and national citizens register that demonstrators are now protesting. Finally, the focus on the BJP’s divisive politics have helped in diverting attention from a faltering economy.

The BJP can’t ignore large and sustained protests, however, especially because they are widely covered in the media and trigger a chain reaction of more dissent and a sense of the party’s fallibility. Ultimately, it may come down to public perception. If there are adverse outcomes in forthcoming elections in Delhi, Bihar, and later in West Bengal, the BJP might be forced to rethink its strategies. Until then, the BJP will continue to claim that the nationwide protests are the handiwork of opposition parties and so-called anti-national elements—a deliberate and unfortunate misreading of recent events.

Ronojoy Sen is a senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore.