The outbreak and national response to the pandemic has for now pushed to the background the deep political polarisation visible in the months following the BJP’s return to power with a stronger mandate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi last summer.
This ferment — nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the discomfort in states about the National Population Register (NPR) questionnaire, and the communal riots in Delhi earlier this year — defines the politics of the last one year.
Even though the economy was on a downward slide with successive quarters of declining growth rate, the BJP government after returning to power chose to leverage its enhanced political capital to pursue its core ideological agenda — Article 370, Ram Temple, Triple Talaq, and CAA — without wasting time. Many of these issues had come up in the previous term, but the BJP was short of numbers in Rajya Sabha for a large part of its tenure. The enhanced majority in Lok Sabha gave it confidence, plus the political capital to manoeuvre the demoralised opposition in Rajya Sabha.
Within weeks of presenting the Budget, the government pushed through the Triple Talaq Bill, and stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcated it into two Union Territories. The government locked down all of the erstwhile state, and sent top Kashmiri leaders behind bars to quell the possibility of public protests. It has so far succeeded in controlling street violence, even though it has faced probing questions from the international community, with China even pushing the issue in the UN Security Council.
The government did not lose its appetite for political confrontation despite the polarised political atmosphere in the wake of Triple Talaq law and dilution of Article 370. In the next session of Parliament, it pushed through legally contentious citizenship amendment legislation.
“We don’t need to set a background for the NRC. We will bring the NRC across the country. Not a single infiltrator will be spared,” Home Minister Amit Shah declared in Lok Sabha on December 9 as he pressed for the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The assertion, coming from the man who had pushed the dilution of Article 370, triggered nationwide protests, leading to several protesters being killed in BJP-ruled states.
Modi’s attempt to dial down the rhetoric on the issue of a nationwide NRC did not cut much ice. Deep political polarisation led to communal rioting in the national capital at the end of February, when US President Donald Trump was in the country. At last count, 53 people had been killed in the violence in Delhi — the first communal riot in the six years since 2014.
Both the dilution of Article 370 and the CAA have since been challenged in the Supreme Court. The government began a diplomatic drive to allay apprehensions abroad.
At the state level, however, the government faced obstacles. Unlike in the first year of its previous term, the BJP’s attempt to monopolise power at every level faced stronger headwinds. It lost power in Jharkhand and Maharashtra, and returned to power in Haryana only after a post-poll alliance. In Delhi, it suffered another humiliating defeat.
Alarmed over the NRC rhetoric, state governments — opposition as well as those sympathetic to the NDA — dug in their heels against the NPR, opening up ground for negotiations before the pandemic put the exercise in limbo.
The crippling effect of Covid-19 on the economy will create challenges that will make new demands of the government’s political capital over the next four years. The public has so far responded positively to the measures taken by the government, but how the situation will unfold economically and socially as the long battle continues, remains to be seen. The ideological agenda had appeared crystal clear in the mind of the government; there does not appear to be much clarity on the post-Covid challenges at the moment.
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