(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the first time in years, the government of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing defense. Protests have sprung up across the country against an amendment to India’s laws — which came into effect on Friday — that makes it easier for members of some religions to become citizens of India. The government claims this is simply an attempt to protect religious minorities in the Muslim-majority countries that border India; but protesters see it as the first step toward a formal repudiation of India’s constitutionally guaranteed secularism — and one that must be resisted.
Modi was re-elected prime minister last year with an enhanced majority; his hold over the country’s politics is absolute. The formal opposition is weak, discredited and disorganized. Yet, somehow, the anti-Citizenship Act protests have taken hold. No political party is behind them; they are generally arranged by student unions, neighborhood associations and the like. Yet this aspect of their character is precisely what will worry Modi and his right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah. They know how to mock and delegitimize opposition parties with ruthless efficiency. Yet creating a narrative that paints large, flag-waving crowds as traitors is not quite that easy.
For that is how these protests look: large groups of young people, many carrying witty signs and the national flag. They meet and read the preamble to India’s Constitution, into which the promise of secularism was written in the 1970’s. They carry photographs of the Constitution’s drafter, the Columbia University-trained economist and lawyer B. R. Ambedkar. These are not the mobs the government wanted. They hoped for angry Muslims rampaging through the streets of India’s cities, whom they could point to and say: “See? We must protect you from them.” But, in spite of sometimes brutal repression, the protests have largely been nonviolent. One, in Shaheen Bagh in a Muslim-dominated sector of New Delhi, began simply as a set of local women in a square, armed with hot tea and blankets against the chill Delhi winter. It has now become the focal point of a very different sort of resistance than what the government expected. Nothing could cure the delusions of India’s Hindu middle class, trained to see India’s Muslims as dangerous threats, as effectively as a group of otherwise clearly apolitical women sipping sweet tea and sharing their fears and food with anyone who will listen.
Modi was re-elected less than a year ago; what could have changed in India since then? Not much, I suspect, in most places that voted for him and his party — particularly the vast rural hinterland of northern India. But urban India was also possibly never quite as content as electoral results suggested. India’s growth dipped below 5% in recent quarters; demand has crashed, and uncertainty about the future is widespread. Worse, the government’s response to the protests was clearly ill-judged. University campuses were attacked, in one case by the police and later by masked men almost certainly connected to the ruling party. Protesters were harassed and detained with little cause. The courts seemed uninterested. And, slowly, anger began to grow on social media — not just on Twitter, but also on Instagram, previously the preserve of pretty bowls of salad. Instagram is the one social medium over which Modi’s party does not have a stranglehold; and it is where these protests, with their photogenic signs and flags, have found a natural home. As a result, people across urban India who would never previously have gone to a demonstration or a political rally have been slowly politicized.
India is, in fact, becoming more like a normal democracy. “Normal,” that is, for the 2020’s. Liberal democracies across the world are politically divided, often between more liberal urban centers and coasts, and angrier, “left-behind” hinterlands. Modi’s political secret was that he was that rare populist who could unite both the hopeful cities and the resentful countryside. Yet this once magic formula seems to have become ineffective. Five of India’s six largest cities are not ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in any case — the financial hub of Mumbai changed hands recently. The BJP has set its sights on winning state elections in Delhi in a few weeks. Which way the capital’s voters will go is uncertain. But that itself is revealing — last year, Modi swept all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi.
In the end, the Citizenship Amendment Act is now law, the BJP might manage to win Delhi, and the protests might die down as the days get unmanageably hot and state repression increases. But urban India has put Modi on notice. His days of being India’s unifier are over: From now on, like all the other populists, he will have to keep one eye on the streets of his country’s cities.