City City Bang Bang, Columns

A problem of solutions?

What exactly is the problem that the Citizenship Amendment Act is solving?  The number of people that are currently seeking citizenship on grounds of religious persecution is extremely modest, not more than a few thousand. And the number protesting it is many times larger. Instead of debating the merits or otherwise of the legislation, what is really worth asking is why would the government go ahead with legislation that causes such strife if the benefits don’t justify it? 

Perhaps because the point of the CAA is not the CAA. What the real purpose of this solution-in-search of-a-problem appears to be is to fix the problems created by this government’s earlier solution- the NRC. Imagined as a grand plan to rid the North East of a large number of Bangladeshi Muslim refugees who had allegedly infiltrated the country, the NRC turned out to be more problem than solution. Reportedly, out of the 1.9 million people identified as illegal, a majority are Hindus. Not surprisingly, this invited a strong backlash from the BJP’s core constituency. The CAA looks like an attempt to fix the problems of the NRC by giving non-Muslims a way out by claiming religious persecution. 

Unfortunately for the government, this solution has created an even bigger set of problems.  While it is unlikely to worry too much about the criticism from the liberals that this move dismantles a founding premise of the Indian state- the promise of equal treatment to people from all religions, and does it seem too fussed about attracting widespread global criticism, violent reaction that it has evoked in parts of the North-East is a problem that it hasn’t quite bargained for. The CAA has lit a fire in the North East that has profound long-term implications on the hard-won stability of the region. The objection there is not one of principle, or the constitutionality of the action, but to what the locals is the fear of being overrun by ‘outsiders’- largely Bengali Hindus. The free pass given to non-Muslim migrants by the CAA is a cause of severe concern and this an issue which is not easy to address. 

What looked like a triumphant political victory for the party is looking a little more complicated now. Of course, the political fall-out is likely to be quite positive in those parts of the country where the stakes are low. For these regions, and particularly for the BJP’s electoral base, all that the CAA currently does is to underline the second-class status of Muslims in the country, and as previous elections have shown, no great objection is forthcoming when this happens. The Muslim backlash against the bill does it no harm either, particularly in West Bengal where it can hope to reap electoral dividends by mobilising a larger share of the Hindu vote. But the Assam problem is a real one, for it is the only region where the issue of migrants is in fact deemed to be a critical one. Given the emotions that surround this issue, it is unlikely that the unhappiness over the bill will blow over anytime soon. As it turns out, the region that had a direct and strong vested interest in the NRC and CAA is the one most unhappy about it. And a move aimed against Muslim migrants has morphed into a movement against Hindu ‘outsiders.’

This is a common pattern that is emerging with this government. Announce a ‘big’ solution which then proceeds to create a bigger problem. Demonetisation was the biggest example of this approach. Announce a sweeping solution to a problem, and then watch helplessly as the solution turns irredeemably sour. Apart from being ineffective in its primary aim, demonetisation has taken a reasonably well-functioning economy and propelled it towards ill-health. The GST experience is similar; even here the solution has unleashed its own set of issues, although one could argue that in the case of GST, the problem that it was setting out to solve was a real and pressing one. Conceptually even the solution was a necessary one; it is in the execution of the solution that the problems occurred. However, the bottom line even here is that a promised solution turned rogue and became a festering problem.

Why does this happen this regularly? Perhaps because this government does not adequately prepare before taking such extreme steps, and in particular does not spend enough time and effort in taking the views of all concerned stakeholders on board. Decisive leadership is taken to mean strong unilateral action. A particular pleasure seems to be taken in surprising people. Actions ring with theatrical purposefulness, and ‘masterstrokes’ are routinely implemented much to the adoring applause from its vociferous band of supporters. The absence of the possibility of debate, of different views getting a hearing on the truly critical issues, leads to a centralisation of decision-making that does not adequately account for the cascading consequences of any action. 

The fact that media has become the lap dog that it has is very useful for the government in most cases, but here it serves to make things worse. Since it faithfully salivates at everything that this government does, its reflexive approval counts for nothing. The absence of any criticism, however, means that an illusion is created whereby the government’s actions do not seem to carry any consequences. An important source of feedback has been neutered and while it does mean that mistakes do not carry the image consequences that they otherwise would, the reality on the ground cannot be managed by perceptions alone, as is clear in this case.

The BJP does have the ability to turn every action, no matter how hasty or unwise, into some form of political advantage. Any other regime would not have recovered from a mistake like demonetisation, but this one has actually thrived. But politics is not everything, and there are times when larger, more fundamental issues are involved. The question of who is a citizen of India is one such.

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