January 5, 2020The Intersectionpublic policy

The government ought to take a more reconciliatory approach

The onus is on the government to get the country to step back from the brink.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

It has been a month since public protests against the Narendra Modi government’s changes to India’s citizenship law erupted across the country. It is clear that the reaction caught the government unawares. It is also clear that the government has misunderstood the nature of the public protests. It has also underestimated the depth, intensity and scale of the sentiment that is driving tens of thousands of people to come out on the streets across the country. Surprise, poor judgement and a combative style have come together to cause the government to adopt an uncompromising political position and use disproportionate force against peaceful protesters.

The Modi government has perhaps calculated that its majority in Parliament, its dominance of public discourse, its control of the law-enforcement machinery, and the popularity of its agenda among large sections of the people will allow it to prevail over the protesting citizens. After all, how long can disparate, politically unorganized groups of students, young people, urban middle classes and members of the Muslim community afford to protest? Yet, so far, attempts to deter protesters with prohibitory orders, detentions and police actions have triggered more protests. As more news trickles out of Uttar Pradesh, the world would probably recoil in horror at the manner in which the BJP government there appears to have used disproportionate force in quelling protests by Muslims in the state. In the coming days and weeks, at least, more consciences are likely to be pricked. The protests will grow and spread.

How might the protests pan out? There are an infinite number of possibilities, but given the constraints of this column, let us narrow them down to four broad scenarios based on the interplay between the actions of the government and the protesters.

The first is a hot clampdown” scenario, where protesters are suppressed (or give up), while the government sticks to its position. This will come at a significant cost and entail repressive policing, political detentions and censorship. The government will find the bandwidth to focus on economic policy after a few months, but find itself on the defensive on the international front. Its economic costs will be significant and the damage to social capital, trust and reputation will take a long time to recover.

In the second scenario, people power”, protesters succeed in getting the government to back down, repeal its amendments to the Citizenship Act, and call off all plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC). If this happens after the government engages in broad negotiations with protesters, it is possible that the Modi government will quickly be able to pivot to a development agenda. Statesmanship can create new social capital that will help regain the path of high economic growth.

A third scenario is cold fizzle”, wherein the government dilutes its enthusiasm for authenticating citizens and driving out illegal immigrants, while the protests gradually lose steam before coming to an end. The government will find the political space to develop and implement measures to get economic growth back on track even as public attention moves on to other issues.

The fourth is a scenario of prolonged confrontation”, wherein neither the government nor the protesters back down. The government continues to malign the motives of protesters, uses greater force in quelling protests, and encourages counter-protesters to come onto the streets. On the other side, there is nationwide coordination of protests, which turn from anti-CAA/NRC into a generalized opposition to the Modi government itself. The format and tactics of the protests evolve rapidly, as people learn from recent movements in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Even if the protests are peaceful most of the time, there is an increase in violence. Opposition parties side with the protesters, and several state governments openly defy New Delhi on more than one issue, creating constitutional crises that the Supreme Court is unable to resolve.

Which of these scenarios is most desirable and which most likely is a subjective call. To the extent that thinking about possible futures allows us to reflect on our choices, they serve a purpose.

To avoid the worst scenario, keeping the protests peaceful remains the biggest practical challenge. Even if the protesters do not intend violence, it can still result as the dynamic outcome of the protest process. It took a Gandhi to call off the non-cooperation movement in 1922 after protesters retaliated against police firing by setting fire to the police station at Chauri Chaura. If protests do not have leaders, leave alone any of the stature of Gandhi, then adhering to non-violence becomes a lot harder. Protesters will have to evolve and enforce their own norms against violence.

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The Modi government can defuse the protests by adopting a more conciliatory approach that is respectful of the protesters’ fears and misgivings. Flat denial, contradictory statements and subterfuge might play well with the BJPs core support base, but will only exacerbate the protests. Even if a hot clampdown and prolonged confrontation are deemed electorally beneficial to the BJP, they are destructive from an economic standpoint. The onus is on the government to get the country to step back from the brink.

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