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Why BJP is persisting with its CAA pitch

The BJP believes in religious monoliths on the lines of Hindus and Muslims. The protests have shown them that the reality can be more varied, diverse, regional and plural. The BJP has cranked up the propaganda machinery to show the resistance as being Islamist. That is the dominant part of the counter-strategy, but the other facet is to crack down hard on Left student unions that have had a role in nuancing and shaping the protests on campuses.

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Saba Naqvi

Senior Journalist

Home Minister Amit Shah has made it clear that the government is not pulling back after three weeks of furious protests across India over the CAA-NRC-NPR. He’s said that the government would not ‘go back an inch’ on the CAA and blames the Congress, AAP and all opposition parties for misleading the people. It appears the BJP is sticking with the CAA as a public issue even for the Delhi elections on February 8, where the AAP appears better placed than the national party.

The Modi-Shah duo has not even offered a face to take on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and say that they will campaign on the CAA. On the face of it, this appears baffling as the violence now in two Delhi campuses, Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU, has put off the middle classes, even those sections that are not enamoured of people that the BJP/ABVP/RSS and many TV anchors describe as ‘jihadis’ and the tukde tukde gang.

So, why is India’s preeminent political party persisting with its CAA pitch after the apparent setbacks (even Jharkhand was lost on December 23, after the CAA was passed by Parliament)? This is because it’s hard to step off a high-speed ideological escalator and big egos are involved. But it’s also because the leadership still sees potential advantages in the future, leading up to the 2024 General Election.

Beyond Jharkhand and Delhi, there will be two state elections that are of the greatest significance for the party. In little over a year, West Bengal will vote in April 2021. Less than a year after that, Uttar Pradesh votes in February 2022. Both these battles involve basic strategies built on marshalling people against the Muslims.

After the recent and ongoing protests, the BJP is of the view that the visual image of Muslims protesting in Uttar Pradesh only magnifies sentiment against the community. While across India, a cross-section of the students and citizens of all faiths protested, in towns of western Uttar Pradesh, in particular, it was Muslims alone. Therefore, the BJP believes that police atrocities against the minority community in Uttar Pradesh may have made national and international news and led to condemnation, but there is no domestic price to be paid.

The minority community, meanwhile, believes that it all ultimately ties into a larger plan to disenfranchise them or create conditions where they do not go out to vote in significant numbers. The Gujarat model of social division is now being applied in Uttar Pradesh, they say.

The atrophied condition of the main opposition state parties such as the BSP, SP and Congress means that while the latter two have taken strong positions against the CAA and NRC, there were no social groups that they have been able to mobilise to join Muslims in protests. This image of ‘Muslim alone’ protest or ‘visibly Muslim’ attire and slogans suit the BJP.

What derails the BJP is that the protest is plural, secular, and most significantly, of the poor and the regions. The Assam situation, for instance, still has the party flummoxed. Indeed, the entire CAA-NRC debacle emerges out of Assam where the regional Assamese identity felt threatened by the Bengalis, regardless of religion.

West Bengal now posits the great challenge for the BJP, both electoral and ideological. First, the historical context: even the creation of Bangladesh showed that regional identity triumphed over religion as a basis for nationhood. Yet communal differences too have a history in Bengal and these divisions have certainly been growing. So, if the state elections were to be just about Hindus and Muslims, surely the BJP would have an advantage.

But that’s not quite what is happening and after an impressive show in the General Election of 2019, the BJP has been losing most byelections in the state. Clearly, people vote differently in national and state polls. But the BJP would be placing all resources, cadre power, muscle, might and manipulation against the TMC regime in the state.

But there is the larger question of regional identity and the BJP does not have a credible Bengali face to challenge the homespun Didi. The fact that Amit Shah is learning Bangla, according to news reports, is amusing but also shows how significant the state is for the party. At this stage, it appears that a year from now, it is Modi and Shah who could be the main faces for the 2021 campaign in West Bengal. The two Hindi-speaking Gujaratis would be tested in Bengal where the supporting cast consists of Rupa Ganguly, a TV actress who played the part of Draupadi in the TV serial Mahabharata, and Babul Supriyo, a reasonably good singer, who is MoS for Environment and Forests in the current government.

The BJP believes in religious monoliths on the lines of Hindus and Muslims. The protests have shown them that the reality can be more varied, diverse, regional and plural. The BJP has cranked up the propaganda machinery to show the resistance as being Islamist. That is the dominant part of the counter-strategy, but the other facet is to crack down hard on Left student unions that have had a role in nuancing and shaping the protests on campuses.

Although communist parties are no longer a significant electoral force outside Kerala, their student organisations or just Left-leaning students have been volunteers in many protests, trying to nuance things in a way that it is presented as secular and a fight for the Constitution as opposed to the Islamist hues the BJP would like to paint the protests with. They are there at Jamia and Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, both symbols of continued resistance. Hence, the rage in ABVP/BJP/RSS against what they see as the coming together of Muslims and Left tactics and symbols of protest.

The BJP is willing to follow a risky strategy because it has mostly gained from mayhem, riots and hatred. The Ram temple movement left a bloody trail, but put the party on the national map; the Gujarat riots of 2002 made the state a Hindutva laboratory while the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 helped the BJP make a near clean sweep in Uttar Pradesh during the 2014 national polls. They are not stepping back.

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