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Recurring protests: A double-edged sword for the opposition

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(co-authored by Aditya Rallan and Rajnish Tuli)

India has witnessed a series of protests against the Central Government ever since the NDA came to power. Most of these have been knee-jerk reactions, opposing almost everything that the Central Government enacted, which as we shall see, have not only diluted the nature of the protests by making the opposition look like the boy who cried wolf but has also sent across a message that the protests have been ill-informed and politically motivated. Perhaps the aim was to replicate an IAC (India against Corruption) like movement, as that seems to be a thorn in the erstwhile government’s side. Notably, the disrupting nature of protests has ended up strengthening BJP by consolidating its core vote bank and even getting them new voters. Modi, who is something of an anti-fragile, to borrow from Taleb’s lexicon, has not lost ground despite these recurring demonstrations but has instead let the opposition self-destruct just by forcing them to act impulsively.

For this article, I am focusing on two recent protests – anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and anti-Farm Bills. First, I will focus on how farmers’ protests pushing silent voters and even BJP detractors towards Modi. Then I will proceed to last year’s protest against CAA.

On the farm protests, my observation is based on multiple calls with my two cousins based in Punjab. One of them is well-educated, aged 36 years, and is a first-generation entrepreneur running an industrial unit. He has been thoroughly apolitical, and during my long association, I have never seen him express any political views. I was therefore surprised when he himself had a fairly long discussion about the protests. I will summarise some of the points that he raised, without commenting on their validity –

  1. Why are farmers from Punjab protesting, when Punjab assembly has passed a bill to suspend the farm law passed by Centre?
  2. Many people who are protesting in his circle are wealthy, third-generation farmers who mostly lease the land and earn rent. Many among the active protestors are those who have a major stake in APMC. He does not see any real farmers who are tilling on the ground talking about this. They are mostly from UP and Bihar and now prefer to work in industry rather than in farms.
  3. Why are protests targeting Reliance and Adani? More importantly, why not a single word being uttered against Unilever, Coke, Nestle and Pepsi, especially because they are quite well entrenched in contract farming?
  4. Finally, when political parties all these years have been harping on how farmers are marginalised, and therefore desperately in need of reforms, why such disrupting protests when reforms have been initiated? These reforms have been on the agenda of almost every party. Why the strong opposition now?

He even dug out relevant material and passionately quoted duplicity of AAP, Akali and Congress on the topic. To him, BJP came across as a party willing to negotiate with farmers and even risking their vote bank for trying to uplift small farmers. He also felt the protest is spoiling Punjab’s prospects as a business hub.

The second cousin of mine is 48 years old, based in Punjab, and not a fan of Modi. She belongs to a business family and has borne a grudge on account of GST and Demonetisation. Economically, she belongs to the upper-middle class. Unlike the cousin mentioned above, she is extremely active on political and social issues.

My initial discussion with her happened when farmers were protesting in Punjab immediately after passing of the bill. At that time, she was quite convinced that the government intended to sell farmers’ land, bring in big conglomerates to grab the agriculture sector. Her key point was that why were these reforms required when farmers themselves were not asking for them? In her opinion, this was akin to the manner Modi has bulldozed other reforms on people.

Two weeks back, when we connected again, we had all witnessed the fury of protests at the Delhi–Singhu border. By now, to my surprise, she was showing signs of dissonance towards protests and blamed politicians for fomenting trouble.

What led to this change of heart? It was principally driven by the “means” adopted by protestors. While she still has sympathy for the issue at hand, she was visibly perturbed by the blockage of the highways. The concern is emanating not just from altruistic grounds as common people are getting inconvenienced, but also because supplies of their family business are being impacted. From her perspective, the protest has now converted into a celebratory mela, with DJs and dancing. Such activities indicate protestors are adequately funded by politicians, NRIs and Arthiyas to settle their own agenda rather of poor farmers.

She was also disturbed with acts of vandalisation in Punjab. She mentioned the destruction of mobile towers, disrupting Reliance stores and Petrol Pumps, which she believes will plunge Punjab into a state of lawlessness and harm her business too. Her support to the farmers also seems to have waned, as she mentioned how farmers added stubble burning, electricity reforms and diesel issues to their agenda. To her, the involvement of film actors and singers dilutes the seriousness of issues.

Notably, the deliberately manufactured Hindu-Sikh differences worried her extremely, as she as a kid has witnessed terrorism and its debilitating effect closely. She was shocked at anti-Hindu rant from the protest site and glorifying Bhindranwale. To add to that, the prudish interventions from foreign leaders infuriated her and is cementing her belief that these protests are politically motivated to embarrass the government.

My overall conclusion was that while these people were anti-Modi and sympathetic to the protestors, the manner of the protests has gradually diluted their support. Specifically, the acts of vandalising, the Hindu-Sikh angle, the involvement of actors/singers, the uncompromising stand of the farmers, and bringing in Ambani-Adani have made the protests look unreasonable and maliciously motivated.

Now coming to CAA protest, I would like to highlight my conversations with two people – one of them my friend’s son (20 years old) and another one my aunt (68 years old), both staying in Uttar Pradesh. Both are associated with opposition parties, AAP and Congress respectively. While they occasionally appreciate Modi for his integrity, they consider BJP as anti-minorities, riots instigator and using religion for political gains.

My friend’s son is pursuing graduation and working part-time. He was a fan of Arvind Kejriwal and a great proponent of his governance in Delhi, especially education, utilities and health. He perceives BJP as communal, working for a few industrial houses and exploit national security. 

What turned him in favour of Modi was the Shaheen Bagh protest against the amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955. He stated that for him, this law was just normal administrative action to extend much due relief to battered minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

What shocked him was how opposition parties under the umbrella of Left started misinformation campaign that CAA will take away citizenship rights of Indian Muslims. He stated his own experience where educated Muslims in his college and locality started believing this insidious plot run by politicians.

He was quite categorical in his observations – Why India should not help minorities in other countries when we have shared history and we know that they are treated badly? Why India should close its doors to victims of Islamic fundamentalism? Why is the entire political class comfortable with Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims but not with Hindus? He found some evidence of citizenship amendments carried under Congress rule during the Sri Lanka crisis and questioned the duplicity of opposition parties.

A key factor was the disruption theme that is being witnessed in farmers’ protest as well – he said the protest had derailed life of thousands of people in the NCR region, as medical aid and access to school became a challenge for local people and people struggled to reach Noida and Ghaziabad. None of the opposition leaders made an effort to educate protestors about CAA but used the platform to defame India at large. Another common theme was the involvement of Bollywood celebrities who had no knowledge of the subject (referring to Farhan Akhtar). He remarked that the CAA protest made him question the superficial and anti-Hindu character of secularism practised in India, which has been propagated by Congress and Left all these years. Similar to the farmers’ protest, the inflammatory speeches and slogans raised against India and Hindus from the protest site made him rethink his support to AAP.

I had few calls with him during the CAA protest period and observed how the opposition, by supporting meaningless and manufactured protests, is helping Modi and BJP to attract new sympathisers. Notably, the opposition has been often accused of appeasing certain sections of the society, a factor that played a role in their defeat in 2014/2019. Through lending their support to anti-CAA protest, they are just cementing people’s opinion about their minority-appeasing stance and duplicity on critical issues.

My Aunty, on the other hand, is a true-blue Congress woman – till date she reveres leaders like Nehru and Indira and supports the party for their contribution to the freedom struggle. She used to vociferously defend Sonia’s foreign origin whenever anyone raised that issue.

On CAA, we had a short discussion in December 2019, where she said Modi government has done the right thing by extending citizenship rights to minorities from Islamic countries, as we are aware of their plight. When I asked her what she thinks of opposition criticism of CAA and Shaheen Bagh, she stated that this is characteristic of any opposition, even BJP would have done all this for a few days.

We reconnected in late February post-Delhi riots. She was quite livid with loss of life and property due to the Delhi riots. What surprised me were her observations about the role of the opposition, which she ignored in our first conversation. She stated why are opposition parties getting so unruffled because more Hindus will be getting citizenship. Where should Hindu go when atrocities are being committed on them in Pakistan, their daughters being taken away? Congress should introspect why they have ignored this issue for so long. She recalled some news program where Dr Manmohan Singh requested for such rights for Pakistan minorities. She said whenever she visits Noida and Delhi hundreds of Bangladeshis are working there and no political party objects, but the citizenship of a few Hindus getting fast-tracked has brought the national capital to a halt.

She said it hurts to see Congress leaders making speeches from the same platform in Shaheen Bagh, from where people are abusing India and making calls to break Assam. In her eyes, Congress always placed nation above anything else (she recalls 1971 and Operation Blue Star as instances), and this came as a rude shock. Why are they abusing Hindus and India? They should keep their anger restricted to BJP. She said why are all opposition leaders disturbing communal harmony by running a misinformation campaign around Indian Muslims. They are protesting considering a hypothetical scenario where Muslims’ citizenship will be in danger, but no one protested when Kashmiri Pandits were displaced.

As I observed in the case of farmers protest, the wanton destruction of property and road blockage reduced her sympathy for the protestors. According to her, when the option of going to court is available, why are the protestors destroying the democratic structures established by Congress itself.

She was pained how Shaheen Bagh was used to defame India during the US President’s trip. She gave an example of how we brush aside our differences when guests are at home, but in a new disturbing trend, the opposition will go all out to get an audience from the guest for India’s internal issues. Especially when Congress has been against internationalising issues such as Kashmir.

When the political class tries to glorify foreign interventions on internal issues, it is generally not taken well by the public. It just shows the opposition has lost faith in their own credibility and is trying to get some confirmation from external bodies.

After collating my thoughts and observations covering two protests in the recent past, I strongly feel that the opposition is inadvertently helping BJP and Modi. By protesting on nearly everything, with every protest ultimately aimed at defaming India at the international stage, disrupting the life of commoners, destruction of property, and a tirade against Hindus, the sympathy of the fence-sitters gradually shifts to Modi. As someone put it succinctly, the protests start from opposing Modi and end up talking against India. By focusing on matters where their duplicity can easily be exposed, opposition parties are showcasing their intellectual deceit and moral incompetence on critical national issues.

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