It was supposed to be the grand launch of the BJP's Delhi campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the protracted Modi speech at Delhi's Ram Lila Maidan was loaded with dollops of denial about the flawed CAA/NRC which has seen at least 20 people killed in nationwide protests. There was also plenty of the Modi self-pity last on display during and immediately after demonetisation in 2016 when Modi tried to defend his decision to ban 85 per cent of the currency in circulation.
If you fact-checked the Modi, there was an embarrassment of riches.
Modi said "The Urban Naxals (a meaningless term coined by the Modi government) are claiming that Muslims will be sent to detention centres. I am surprised that even the well-educated are asking where the detention centres are." Not quite, PM. In September this year, Principal Secretary, GOI, (special) Ministry of Home Affairs Amitabh Gupta said on record that the process to identify the detention centres began in July last year.
Modi, who seemed rattled by the intensity of the NRC protests and was defensive, appeared to suggest that the NRC, the bigoted twin of the CAA threatened by his top aide and union Home Minister Amit Shah, is still not a reality. Modi singled out the opposition, particularly the Congress party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for the "Jhoot" (lies) they are spreading on the planned NRC which, along with the CAA will ensure that citizenship of India will be given on religious grounds while specifically discriminating against Muslims.
Considering the shambolic state of the Congress party which cancelled a five-hour (3 pm to 8 pm) protest at Raj Ghat because it did not get permission from the Delhi Police, Modi's charge of the Congress setting the country afire is laughable. His attack on Banerjee, currently the most demonised leader in the BJP lexicon, was of a piece with Shah. The BJP hopes to capture West Bengal with the NRC as a potent electoral weapon in the state elections due in 2021.
Significantly, Modi had no words of commiseration for those families who have lost members in the 14-day CAA/NRC protests. Modi did not mention the protesting students united across 22 campuses in his rambling speech. He did, however, ask the massive crowd to chant slogans in support of policemen who had died in the line of duty. A lot of his points today claimed that his government has not indulged in discrimination against the Muslims in government schemes; this seemed belligerent and also contradictory to Shah's promise of a countrywide NRC. A significant amount of Shah's comments which included alluding to Muslim refugees as "deemak" (termites) have been deleted by the official BJP handle.
So unlike some sunny commentators, who see Modi as making concessions on the proposed NRC today, I do buy it. Modi and Shah understand what the NRC signifies to the BJP voter base and how it fires them up. They simply cannot be seen as making ideological concessions at this time. Particularly as the RSS, the Lode Star of the Sangh, is completely on the same page as the Modi government.
The BJP has planned an outreach to three crore people on what they say are opposition-fanned misunderstandings on the CAA/NRC. The RSS, which provides the boots on the ground to the BJP, is in the thick of a similar campaign to make "nagriks" (citizens) understand and it simply won't allow the Modi government to cede any ground on this hot-button base issue.
This even as BJP allies signal uneasiness with the controversial plans (see earlier column). A senior RSS ideologue told me, "You say we will lose support. We will welcome it. It is grand and splendid ideological isolation."
The Jharkhand results are due tomorrow and pollsters say the best the BJP can hope for is a hung house. This may not impact the CAA/NRC plans. The BJP's best-case scenario is that the protests are accepted as led by Muslims in which all the familiar "anti-national" and "urban Naxal" tropes will flourish. As for Delhi, which will choose its next government early next year, Modi did not even bother to name his rivals - the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress - making generic charges of serial lies on water and civic issues.
In recent months, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has abandoned his earlier habitual personal attacks on Modi. Kejriwal is trying to keep the Delhi elections local and has not visited the Jamia Millia Islamia campus where the Delhi Police went on the attack against students. As far as the Congress is concerned, they have postponed their CAB/NRC agitation to another day.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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