Note: Personally, I find great satisfaction from being able to legitimately criticize something that I otherwise generally support and agree with. It comes from the basic understanding that no one is obligated to support and agree with everything that anyone says or does. And so, this is me openly criticizing the Modi Government over the way the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was brought about (and NOT its contents).
I write this post with the obvious acknowledgment that the narrative on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is firmly set against it – both domestic and foreign. The media is critical of it, there are large scale protests spread across the country, misinformation and incorrect perceptions have taken the place of facts, and the Government has largely no control over any of it.
So instead of talking about the merits of the CAA, I will here talk about the lessons that the Modi Government can and should learn from this debacle (yes that is what it is). These lessons are applicable to any legislation and to any Government anywhere – past and future. And it is certainly relevant in the present case. So here goes a (clearly non-exhaustive) list of lessons that the Modi Government should learn from the CAA protests:
1. Acknowledge the radical nature of the legislation:
The Citizenship Amendment Bill set out to right a historic wrong going back all the way to the partition of India. Even though quite narrow in scope, the intent of the bill can easily be perceived to be quite radical. This is especially true when viewed through the prism of similar historical legislation and the absence of any kind of precedence to it. So yes, anytime there is a radical change proposed, there are always bound to be protests – regardless of its ultimate intent or effect. This acknowledgment is necessary to push the Government to take proactive steps to clarify and inform the public about the legislation. The other two radical changes brought about by this Government – Demonetization and rescinding of Article 370 – were understandably kept secret till their execution. But the protests following them should have been indicative of what to expect with the CAA.
2. Anticipate the reaction of radical elements in the country:
The acknowledgment of their presence is already there. But it should also include the anticipation of their reactions to the proposed radical changes. By radical elements, I am referring to those in the country (and abroad) whose objectives are to simply create chaos, promote divisions, propagate hate, incite and carry out violent acts, etc. These people do exist and include those in certain political parties, media houses, university student bodies, extremist groups, terrorist cells, etc. These people hold the power on various platforms and to various degrees to create legitimate unrest and violence across the country without having any of it attributed back to them. It is important to acknowledge their power and address it directly and in a proactive manner.
3. Media Outreach is Necessary:
This Government’s piss poor record of outreach to the media – domestic and foreign – is quite evident in the critical narratives propagated by every single media outlet not named Republic TV or Times Now. With no regular media briefing since its first day in office back in 2014 and practically no 1 v 1 interviews off the campaign trail, the various media houses have no incentive or desire to scale back on their pre-determined narratives critical of every single thing this Government does or stands for.
The fact that so much of the media fraternity all over the world is low level scum is irrelevant to the basic acknowledgment of the massive power they wield. It is therefore in the Government’s interest to keep these people in the loop and have an open and direct interaction with them on a regular basis. This Modi Government needs to look no further than its own backyard – the RSS – to understand how it has strikingly increased its outreach efforts to involve the entire world media. Simple fact is this: If you don’t set the narrative, they will.
4. The responsibility of explaining and justifying any legislation is on the Government, not its supporters:
Expecting support for a legislation as a matter of general principle just because it was in the party’s election manifesto is extremely idiotic and naive. It is the Govt’s responsibility to actively seek support for a legislation not just in the houses of the Parliament, but in the court of public opinion as well. This Government’s complete absence of efforts to educate the general public on the CAB through various platforms reeks of arrogance and a cocksure attitude probably stemming from the successful Article 370 rescission.
In its absence, its supporters pick up the Govt’s slack to educate the public. Nothing constructive ever comes out of leaving the public to educate the public on something the public can easily be divided over. The messaging is never uniform, bias creeps in, talking points are made up on the fly, sound bites and tweets go around as facts, subtlety gets lost in ‘panel discussions’, and the critics will ultimately have a field day ripping all of it apart. This will inevitably lead to misinformation, counter-narratives, and fear mongering.
5. Educate the public on all platforms:
Prior to the legislation being tabled, there should be a coordinated nationwide effort to explain, justify, and address concerns with the proposed legislation. Responding to concerns on the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha floor or explaining the bill in campaign rallies do not count for shit to the public. Having talking heads participate in the cacophony of the ‘Panel Discussion’ is useless at best, and counter-productive at worst.
Govt representatives (including the PM and HM) must give 1 v 1 interviews with ALL news channels and newspapers – including and especially those that are critical of them. Create fact sheets and FAQs, publicize them on all Social media platforms and WhatsApp. Actively seek and respond to questions and concerns and update the fact sheets accordingly. Have local MLAs and MPs give interviews to local TV channels and newspapers explaining what the bill does. Have open dialogues with representatives of those groups that perceive a danger from the bill. These are acts that minimize the scope for misinformation to spread and radical elements to cause chaos. These are also what builds consensus among the general public.
However, these are also things that will unfortunately never see the light of the day with an arrogant Government, or without the acknowledgment of the radical nature of the proposed change.
When it comes to protests, the best way to address them is by their prevention. Once protests start, there is absolutely no control over how they can proceed and/or spread. And when they inevitably result in violence, the response from the state and police will ALWAYS be what is highlighted, emphasized, and criticized. All the acts of damage by the protesters will be completely irrelevant to the acts of police overreach that has historically been inevitable in a country like India – especially when containing a violent protest.
But to prevent the protests, it is the Government’s responsibility to acknowledge the nature of the proposed change, acknowledge what the radical elements in society can do, reach out to the media in good faith, actively explain the bill to the general public on all relevant platforms, and get their feedback.
Bringing about a change in a country as diverse as India does not begin and end with getting some 450 people to vote a certain way. It begins with the general public, goes through the 800+ people who vote in the Parliament, and then ends with the general public. It is time the Modi Government learn these lessons for its own sake, and if it seeks to fulfill many more of its promises from the manifesto without having to handle nation-wide protests.