The abiding power of protest

                              Nothing it seemed could unsettle the present leaders of India, until its youth had spoken

On the back of their improved majority in Parliament following the 2019 general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have accomplished the unimaginable in a democracy of India’s size and diversity: they have negated nearly every potential political challenge to their ascendancy. Apart from the Opposition, potential challengers in a democracy with India’s characteristics are the media and corporate sector. The astonishing thing is that much of the negation has been achieved without obviously violating democratic procedures. It has been achieved either through parliamentary majority or using the legitimate powers of the Indian state.

Impervious to criticism so far

However, democracy is also about norms unwritten, such as giving the Opposition time to respond and never using brute force in Parliament to push bills through or deploying the threat of criminal investigation outside it to rein-in dissenting journalists, intellectuals and corporate leaders. Two areas where the Modi government has had remarkable success in having its way, or at least has so far remained impervious to criticism, are Kashmir and the economy.

One does not have to be an enthusiast of Article 370 of the Constitution to disagree with Mr. Modi’s policy in that area. First, however irrelevant an erstwhile provision, for the Centre to change the constitutional status of a State without so much as giving notice constitutes an abuse of power. Then came the simultaneous bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and the conversion of the parts into Union Territories. Finally, the detention of its political leadership, who have not been charged of any wrong-doing, and the communication channels blockade are despotic.

The slowing growth of the economy does not even begin to capture the condition of the unemployed. There is also evidence that consumption expenditure may have declined. Unperturbed by evidence of these phenomena, Mr. Modi continues to assert that the economy is poised to attain the $5 billion mark, and his government has shelved the report that points to the decline in consumption on grounds of “adverse findings”. Few prime ministers have gotten away so easily. In the 1950s, in response to Rammanohar Lohia’s assertion that poverty was not declining, erstwhile Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru constituted a committee headed by India’s pre-eminent statistician to investigate the claim.

Protests that show some truths

Nothing it seemed could unsettle the present leaders of India. That was until its youth had spoken. They have now, and we may be witnessing a transformation of India’s democracy. Starting at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia students in campuses have arisen in protest. There has always been student participation in political movements, but in the past they may have been parochial, even when democratic ideals were at stake. In the 1960s the students of erstwhile Madras State had agitated successfully against the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language; later the students of Osmania University at Hyderabad had agitated for a separate Telangana; and in the 80s the students of Assam succeeded in bringing about the Assam Accord. Now students are agitating for a constitutional democracy expressing their dissent towards the Citizenship Amendment Act which they perceive as blatantly communal.

We cannot say where this will lead us, but their protest shows us some truths. First, it disproves the perception that the present generation is only concerned with entitlements. Many of the campuses on which the protests are taking place are solidly middle class, but the students are protesting the violation of democracy not agitating for privileges for themselves. Second, the campuses where the protests are occurring far outnumber Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University. This busts the idea fashionable in some circles that India has been irretrievably communalised. Finally, the student protests appear to be spontaneous. Political parties of every hue — the nationalists, the secularists and the identity mongers — could not but have taken note.