The political standoff between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and those in opposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is set to intensify further in the coming weeks. As Narendra Modi, his ministerial colleagues and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) top functionaries travel across the country in support of the amended law, the opposition parties, despite division in their ranks, seem determined to use all judicial and legislative routes to protest against it.
A meeting of 20 opposition parties, convened by Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, on January 13 adopted a joint resolution and called upon all Chief Ministers of states to consider suspending work related to the National Population Register (NPR), a project of the federal Indian government, because these parties suspect it to be a prelude to the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The call has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the conduct of the NPR in about a dozen states where governments have positioned themselves against the NRC. Only two states—left-ruled Kerala and Trinamool Congress-governed West Bengal—have so far given formal orders to put NPR work on hold. It remains to be seen if Congress governments in Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry will follow suit. But can the Congress, a junior ruling coalition partner in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, persuade the Chief Ministers of the two states to also stop the NPR exercise? Can the opposition bring on board non-BJP-led and non-Congress-led ruling regional parties, such as Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi? The opposition bait may also test key BJP ally Janata Dal (United), whose Chief Minister in Bihar Nitish Kumar has termed the NRC as “not necessary.”
However, the January 13 opposition meeting made headlines as much for the anti-NPR resolution as for the sharp fissures among opposition groups, made evident by the list of parties which did not show up for what was billed as a major show of unity. Among the absentees were Congress’ staunch ally Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, two key players in Uttar Pradesh, AAP, Shiv Sena leading the coalition government in Maharashtra that includes Congress, and Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh. These parties together have 83 members in the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the Congress and the 19 other parties which attended the meeting have a combined strength of 74 lawmakers in the lower House with Congress alone accounting for 52 of them. The most talked-about absence in the meeting was that of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as its differences with the Congress in Tamil Nadu played out in public.
Among the opposition parties, there appeared to be competition for the position of the most strident CAA/NRC/NPR critic. If the left in the Kerala assembly became the first state to pass a resolution against the CAA, Congress- led Punjab did the same last week to become the second state. Kerala also became the first state to move to challenge the CAA in the Supreme Court; Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh later said his government too would question the amended legislation in the apex court. Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel was quoted by The Times of India as saying that the party was thinking of asking its governments in the three heartland states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to adopt assembly resolutions against the CAA. The cumulative effect of opposition moves is of course to keep the heat on the government on a burning political issue. So strong was the competitive politics among the anti-CAA parties that West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chairperson Mamata Banerjee was forced to make a U-turn and announce her government’s decision to have a resolution passed in the state assembly against the amended citizenship law soon. It was the same Mamata who had turned down the Left-Congress proposal for such a resolution when the assembly met last week for a one-day session, arguing that the House had passed a resolution against NRC in September last year. In a belated acknowledgement, Mamata said on January 20 that she could not appeal to others to adopt anti-CAA resolutions without doing it in her own state. Mamata’s change of stance also invited criticism from both the Left and the Congress who accused of her having “double standard.”
But can mere passing resolutions in the legislatures in states ruled by the opposition stall the implementation of the CAA? Senior Congress leaders like Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh do not think so, even while they agree that such resolutions are part of the legitimate right to dissent. In fact, Sibal, one of the top legal brains of Congress, was more blunt in his view when he said it would be “unconstitutional” for state governments to say no to the implementation of the CAA. The opposition knows that BJP under Modi-Amit Shah leadership poses a much tougher challenge than it had done under the Atal Bihai Vajpayee and L K Advani combination. So the Supreme Court hearing on January 22 on petitions challenging the CAA was keenly watched. Not that a final judgement was expected. All that the apex court did on that day was to refuse to put on hold the implementation of the amended citizenship law. That itself was a big relief for the central government.
At a broader level, from the point of India’s governance structure, the tug of war over the CAA/NPR/NRC raises a crucial question: what does it bode for the cooperative federalism of the country? Citizenship is a subject in the exclusive domain of the federal government and states only execute the former’s decisions and instructions. But what happens if some states refuse to implement the CAA/NRC/NPR that are administrative exercises of the federal government? Even the Kerala government, which challenged the CAA in the top court, admits this in a way. It has challenged the amended citizenship law under Article 131 of the Constitution and requested the apex court to strike down the CAA, as the state would otherwise have to operationalise it under Article 256.
On the political front, the BJP, in a change of tack away from its polarising narrative, recently framed the CAA issue as pro-Dalit and pro-poor, arguing that the law would benefit the “Dalits, the down-trodden and the exploited” who came to India from neighbouring countries. On the other hand, the opposition, in a bid to counter the saffron party’s attempt to cloak the CAA in its nationalism narrative, decided to celebrate the birthday of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on January 23, and organised readings of the Constitution’s Preamble on Republic Day on January 26 and Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary on January 30 as a campaign to promote communal harmony. These three days are important dates in the annual calendar of Indian nationalism. The opposition is also debating how to continue the anti-CAA agitations and what its role would be in shaping and guiding it. Should the momentum of the movement be decided by the students as it has been so far or should there be more involvement from the political parties?
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for
The Daily Star.