As the Citizenship Amendment Act was notified on January 10 amid raging protests across the country, I wonder if Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were brooding over how the narrative has slipped out of their hands.
For a party that won such a huge majority less than eight months ago, both of them have been unable to keep their scheduled appointments ìn several states, including some governed by their own party.
But if they have been unable to visit these states - like Modi did Karnataka last month and Assam in January– they have had to contend with thousands or even lakhs of demonstrating workers and other citizens in a two-pronged protest over both the economy and the citizenship law.
I wonder if the duo has the wisdom to realise that their use of central agencies, including the Enforcement Directorate and the police in different states to drive fear into the political parties and their leaders, is what has driven that fear out of the people.
Look at how Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar defeated the use of the ED to cow him down. In retrospect, it was a stupid idea to finger Pawar weeks ahead of the Maharashtra assembly elections because that awoke the ferocious warlord in a man who was in a state of semi-retirement and would have handed the baton over to the GenNext sooner rather than later.
Stirring him up meant that the Bharatiya Janata Party lost more seats than it was expected to win, the tendency in the top duo to decimate its allies got the Shiv Sena too fighting back and ultimately lost the party its government in one of the most important states in the country.
The use of central agencies against opposition leaders, while restraining some, has also boomeranged after the arrests of Congress leaders P Chidambaram and DK Shiv Kumar who were deliberately denied bail while the agencies desperately tried to turn up evidence against them in trumped-up charges but to no avail.
Ultimately, they had to be released and they returned with renewed vigour, leaving the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party the only ones fighting back the ruling dispensation in various ways.
But perhaps the biggest mistake of the duo has been to target students, whether at the Jamia Milia Islamia University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University or Jadavpur University.
These were representative of the two biggest bète noires of this dispensation - Muslims and the Left. But then other universities joined in the protests. So, how does one explain that even Banaras Hindu University opposes the CAA and that the National Students Union of India sweeps elections in the Sanskrit University in Varanasi, defeating the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad in all seats?
Then again, they would have loved to propagate the narrative that only Muslims were protesting the CAA. So why are so many Hindus of all castes, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and others from all classes hitting the streets in such large numbers every day?
Short of violence against them, which is likely to alienate them further, there is little the duo can do to persuade them otherwise as evident from how even wooing Bollywood did not win over the industry.
The most shocking of all happenings for the BJP clearly has been the surprise visit of ace actress Deepika Padukone to the JNU after last Sunday’s attack by the ABVP - now caught in a sting confessing to their involvement in the crime – on students at the university, to show solidarity with the victims.
Now Bollywood is among the most vulnerable to government pressures. But the fact that Deepika should visit JNU two days before the release of her film Chapaak, which is her debut production, is quite telling.
Unlike Smriti Irani, who has now been pressed into action to intimidate Deepika, the latter, with an enviable repertoire, has got to where she is in life under her own steam and talent. Irani has only one saas-bahu serial to write home about, any other acting assignments were eminently forgettable. Her political career was shaped by ingratiating herself first to Pramod Mahajan, then Nitin Gadkari and then Modi.
Unlike Irani, who never went to college, Deepika is an alumnus of the Indira Gandhi Open University, where she enrolled for sociology out of a genuine interest to do good for the people but could not complete her degree because of a career that took off so gloriously that Irani could not have even dreamt of with all her political clout.
She had as much to lose as the Khans who have been cowed into staying silent. She has now become the inspiration for many other top stars from Bollywood, like Varun Dhawan, who have also spoken up for the students.
Many more members of civil society are joining the protesters either on the streets or with open endorsements on social media. When a young girl held a placard saying “Free Kashmir" at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, the BJP sought to give it a separatist twist. As it turned out, the girl was a Maharashtrian from Mumbai and a random protester.
So, far from attempting to embarrass the Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray for allowing the protest to happen under his nose, it brought out citizens’ concerns for Kashmiris – rather late in the day, though – and Free Kashmir placards put in their appearances across other cities in the country.
Thus, of late, none of the BJP's narratives seem to be running according to script. Modi and Shah must really wonder why. I see the answer in an argument I had with my father while still at school. Seeking his help for a debate on ‘Food or Freedom’, he had said cynically, “What will you do with freedom when you have no food?”
Too young to understand nuances at the time, I picked up the argument with him years later to ask if he would be satisfied with an incarceration where the jailer brought him regular meals but he could not breathe the fresh air or take in the sight of the blue skies and green trees. He was stumped.
Today, Modi and Shah are in trouble because people have neither food nor freedom. And citizens of all hues are fighting bitterly for both.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)