" Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!"
Attempting to extricate itself from the tangled web of the truths and half- truths about NRC-CAA, the Modi-Shah government seems to be tying itself further in knots by announcing another potentially volatile idea—NPR or National Population Register.
At a moment in time when the country is already thoroughly confused and terribly divided over the injection of selective religious criteria in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the motives behind the plan for a nation-wide National Citizenship Register (NCR), the timing of the Cabinet approval for a National Population Register is baffling, to say the least.
Why would a government that is already facing the most serious mass protests of its six-year tenure add fuel to the fire of widespread public unrest by initiating yet another gigantic census exercise which would inevitably make the confusion worse confounded?
There are only two plausible answers to that question: One, that by adding the new dimension of NPR, it is hoping to defuse the raging controversies over NCR and CAA. Two, for some devious reasons the government wants the current crisis and unrest to wax and not wane.
Since the second hypothetical conjecture goes against the norms of rational governance, one is left with only the first assumption — that the Modi-Shah regime intends to project the National Population Register scheme as an innocuous and routine exercise to divert attention from the NRC-CAA conflagration.
In other words, in order to quell the anger and allay the suspicions of the student community and other sections of civil society, a desperate public relations campaign will be launched regarding the NPR in the hope that the public discourse about NCR will get blurred.
Strategists in the PMO and Home Ministry are acutely aware that the tidal wave of spontaneous street protests — not only by students of more than two dozen elite educational institutions but also common citizens in cities and towns across the country — have gifted Opposition parties with a golden opportunity to mobilize a political campaign against Modi Raj.
That process has already begun, in the national capital and several states as well. Never before since 2014 has the principal Opposition party, the Congress, been so much on the front foot and exuded such self-confidence. The bizarre ban on Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi from entering strife-torn Meerut indicates that the BJP thinks so too.
Recent electoral successes and dexterity in forming governments in erstwhile BJP-ruled States has expectedly acted as an elixir — but the revolt by civil society against NRC-CAA, beginning from Assam and spreading to West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere has provided the Congress leadership a highly emotive issue on a platter.
Also taking the cue, other anti-BJP parties have begun to mobilize protests in their own regions and this has electrified efforts to forge a new kind of Opposition unity which has nothing directly to do with electoral politics. It has quickly assumed the form of an ideological war against perceived RSS-BJP designs to divide the psyche of the country by alienating and excluding the minority Muslim community from full and equal citizenship status and rights.
For a party that prided itself on media management skills and exceptional ability to manipulate public opinion, the BJP has clearly been caught napping by the intensity of the mass upsurge. Home Minister Amit Shah’s extraordinary TV interview on Tuesday, which was telecast in full on all channels as if on governmental instructions, is a belated bid to regain the initiative, especially after Prime Minister Modi’s Ram Leela Maidan rally speech on Sunday backfired badly.
Shah had the difficult task of defending Modi’s fact-free assertions on NCR and detention centres while at the same time delicately backtracking from his own recent categorical and diametrically opposite statements on the subject.
Faced with surprisingly probing and persistent questioning, the Home Minister doggedly denied there was any link whatsoever between CAA and NCR nor any connection between NCR and the new NPR. But whether such staunch denials are credible or not, the situation on the ground is showing little sign of abating. On the contrary, with more sordid details emerging about the ruthless repression of citizens' rights in the past many days, the protests seem likely to continue with greater intensity well into the new year.