City City Bang Bang, Columns

2020: On a Knife’s Edge?

Talk about a cliff-hanger finish. 2019 has ended in turmoil. A host of questions and possibilities have been thrown by the events of this year, with variables multiplying as the year dragged its dying carcass to the finish line. How will the CAA/NRC/NPR issue pan out? Will the government will be able to ram its agenda through or will it retreat to fight another day? Will more decisive steps be taken on the journey to a full-fledged Hindu Rashtra? Will the new-found voice of protest that has sprung up all over the country be able to convert itself into something more lasting and meaningful? Will the judiciary intervene decisively or will run shy of confronting thorny issues? What will happen to the economy? Will the government begin to give it the priority it so badly needs? Will the media rediscover its spine? Barring the last question, the answer to which is a foregone conclusion, all the other questions have no clear answers.

In many ways, 2019 was the first year when the BJP government truly acted like a BJP government. Having perhaps decided that the first year of its term gave it the best opportunity to bring about the changes it truly desired, it has gone about executing its cultural agenda with speed and great resolve. The criminalisation of Triple Talaq, the virtual abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the passing of the CAA are all pieces that fit together and outline a clear trajectory of its intentions. If one could extrapolate from its current path, it would not be too difficult to foresee its script for 2020. The NPR/NRC, the Uniform Civil Code and the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple are some of the other likely milestones. 

In following this path, it has simultaneously shown a level of disregard for the state of the economy that is difficult to understand. Barring a few superficial moves, it has allowed the economy to drift into a state of decline, and made its task that much harder for the rest of its term. Given that a lot of Mr Modi’s personal cachet has been built on the back of his reputation as an active agent of development, this disinterest in the economy has been particularly distressing for business, the constituency most optimistic about his tenure at one time.

If the government’s disproportionate focus on its cultural agenda to the detriment of the economy has been a surprise, so has the scale and intensity of the protests that have sprung up all over the country. In the past, none of the government’s actions have been seriously challenged. The large mandate enjoyed by the government coupled with the absence of any meaningful opposition had created a sense that it could do whatever it wanted. The profile of the people protesting went well beyond the usual smattering of well-meaning activists, and cut across class, town size and significantly religion. This was not a Muslim-only protest movement, and the active leadership of the young, both in several towns as well as in campuses across the country, was again something that was against the run of play. 

The government’s response has been two-fold. On the ground, it has come down heavily on the protests, particularly in Muslim-dominated areas, while on air it has made vague and not entirely comprehensible sounds suggesting a backdown. Police action has often been brutal and any number of videos documenting this are doing the rounds. It is clear that the police have been given the mandate to send a message and they are doing just that. Allegations of violence from the protestors’ side may well have a grain of truth in them, but the police response has been in line with what Yogi Adityanath termed as a desire for ‘revenge’. Besides, the state has discovered a new-found respect for public property, one that has been sorely in the absence in previous agitations. 

The way forward looks murky. If the BJP believes that the protests will die down in a while and that it can go ahead with its plans without too much disruption, then it may be in for a surprise. The stakes here are deeply asymmetrical. For one side it is a matter of existence and freedom and for the other, underlining of a symbolic distinction. Even if the protests were to become quieter, when the actual NRC is carried out, the situation is almost certain to become highly volatile. Also, regional parties in different states, even if they happen to be BJP allies, have not shown the appetite for handling the kind of fallout that is inevitable. 

On the other hand, it is possible that the NRC was always a red herring. Its purpose was never to be implemented but to be used as a polarising agent. If that is the case, then that plan might well work. At some stage sustained protests by Muslims will in all likelihood invite a reaction, particularly in small town North India. But unlike the earlier instances where the polarisation was largely of a controlled nature, this time around, there are chances that it will become a raging fire that could consume the country. There are signs that there is a New India, and it might not look like what the ruling party might have wished for. 

2020 is set up intriguingly, menacingly even. The gradual stifling of democratic institutions that has been in evidence over the last many years might reach a decisive point. The subjugation of the Muslim in India might become more official. The space for disagreement and dissent might shrink even more. Alternatively, the countervailing spirit of resistance might halt the government in its tracks. More practically, its lack of success in state politics and its inability to carry state governments along might slow down the government’s plans to push ahead with its cultural agenda. 2020 will determine the future direction this country will take. One way or another. 

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