Students shout slogans and hold an Indian flag during a protest against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAB) at the University Campus of Mumbai on Monday. Photo: AFP/Punit PARANJPE

As violence and rage spread across India over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), it is time to ask what Indians voted for just seven months ago in the general elections. Indians gave a historic landslide victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected for a consecutive second term with a rare single-party majority.

Such an electoral feat has not been seen in India since the 1970s. With 303 seats out of a 545-seat parliament, Modi and his party, the BJP, dominate India’s political landscape. Ideally, this should have led to political stability, economic progress and assure an international standing for India that it has long deserved.

But eight months on, the economy is in shambles, its international reputation is diminishing, students are up in arms and several states are in turmoil. Protests over the new citizenship law have spread to the six states in the North East, the capital city of New Delhi, the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

As of Monday, students across 33 universities across India were out on the roads protesting. A joint statement from the national law schools also criticized the Chief Justice of India. They reminded him that fundamental rights cannot be conditional with India’s constitutional framework, after he refused to hear a clutch of petitions against the police brutality.

The recently passed amendments to the citizenship law bars Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from Indian citizenship. Most agree that the BJP’s ultimate aim is to establish a Hindu majoritarian nation.

But is this what a large majority of Indians voted for in 2014 and again in 2019?

Targeting Muslims

In an election rally in the state of Jharkhand on Sunday, Prime Minister Modi tacitly blamed Muslims for the spreading protests and said “those spreading the fire can be identified by their clothes.” He said this on a day when police officers in the national capital of Delhi were beating up students from a premier university that is known for hosting largely Muslim students. Video images sent out by the students show the police entering the Jamia Milia University’s library to fire tear gas shells and beat up students.

Instead of appealing for calm and reassure citizens, the prime minister went back to target Muslims in a state that has convicted several people for lynching a young Muslim to death a few years ago. These convicts were later seen being felicitated by the union minister of civil aviation in the last term of the Modi government. Clearly, Modi’s messaging was classic dog whistle politics to further polarize voters against Muslims and vote for the BJP. The fact that most polls predict that the BJP is likely to lose in the ongoing state elections could be a factor.

But the targeting of Muslims is not new. In 1992 the prime minister was part of a movement that led to the demolition of a 500-year-old mosque. His party and its umbrella organization, the RSS, believe that the mosque was built by emperor Babur’s officials after demolishing a temple that belonged to a mythical God-King. The Supreme Court recently passed an order granting the disputed site to the Hindus for building a temple, even though it called the demolition an “illegal act.” In 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of his home state Gujarat, riots led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims. Many believed that the Muslims were targeted and the state held back the police until the mobs had carried out targeted pogroms.

The Citizenship Amendment Act now threatens to further alienate Muslims and make them stateless. Seen in isolation, the Act seems innocuous enough. But when it is coupled with a promise to carry out a National Register of Citizens across India, an exercise that will require citizens to prove they are indeed Indians, then Muslims know that those who fail to make the cut will be declared as citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and therefore, no longer eligible.

Naturally, the international community is watching this with caution. India has been put on the “genocide watch” list, the US State Department has issued statement cautioning the Modi government and the UN says the law is “fundamentally discriminatory” against the Muslims. India’s international standing has never been at a lower point in history.

The contentious citizenship law comes in the wake of the Modi’s government’s move on August 5 this year to remove a special constitutional provision in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that gave it special status. Being India’s lone Muslim-majority state, Kashmir had been given a special status similar to the ones given to India’s north-eastern states to protect their cultural and ethnic identity. Overnight, the state’s elected leaders were jailed, the internet suspended and 30,000 additional federal policemen were rushed in to change the state’s status.

A slew of failed promises

By the end of 2018, months before the general elections were due, it was clear that India’s economy was in a mess. Its economic growth has crashed, industrial production and private consumption is down and unemployment was at its highest in 45 years. Food price inflation is now in double digits while household incomes have shrunk. The prime minister’s 2014 slogan that “achche din (Good days) are coming”, has been abandoned even by his party.

However, the prime minister has rarely spoken about the failing economy, if at all. On most days he is heard assuring citizens that India will have a US$5 trillion economy by 2024. However, no one seems to know how India will climb out of its current economic morass to hit that target. Economists say that at conservative estimates, India needs to grow at a rate of at least 11% to hit that target. As per the latest quarterly figures, India’s growth rate, under a new calculation method that is suspected by major international agencies, is at 4.5%.

But the stumbling economy is just one of the many promises made by Modi that had propelled him to his historic electoral wins.

In 2015 he launched the “Digital India” project promising thousands of new jobs riding on the new internet-based economy. Not only have the jobs disappeared, India is now cited as the country with the most internet shutdowns globally. It has been shut down in Kashmir for over 134 days, and suspended in Assam and parts of Uttar Pradesh as protests over the citizenship law spreads. With protests breaking out in Delhi, the internet could be shut down in the national capital as well.

The safety of women was another major promise made by Modi all through 2013 as a run up to the general elections of 2014. He also launched a “keep daughters safe” program in January 2015.

But in Unnao, a small district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a legislator from his party, was accused of repeatedly raping a young girl. When she protested and tried to file a police complaint, her father and uncle were arrested. The father was murdered while in police custody, and the girl was nearly killed in a road accident believed to have been engineered by Sengar’s henchmen. Following an intervention by the Supreme Court, the case was transferred to Delhi and Sengar was finally found guilty of rape on Monday.

But throughout this episode, Modi never uttered a word on the issue, even though he is extremely articulate on Twitter and has 52 million followers. He also runs a regular radio program but has never expressed a word about this episode, undermining his promise to increase safety for women.

The youth in India have been traditionally touted as the “democratic dividend” who will reap major benefits in the future. But with 33 universities campuses protesting against the federal government, this “democratic dividend” is now rejecting the future being thrust upon them.

With failures on most counts, it begs the question: What did Indians overwhelmingly vote for – a progressive India that emerges as an economic powerhouse or a country that persecutes its religious and social minorities? In the absence of progress, social, economic or otherwise, chances are that Indians are now voting for demagoguery that dominates its political discourse.

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