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Before covid-19, the one government agenda that dominated headlines was its plan to redo India’s citizenship laws and processes. The first move was the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) enacted in December 2019 to facilitate fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim residents of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who came to India on or before 31 December 2014. The second related to the proposal to conduct an all-India NRC (National Register of Citizen) to establish the antecedents of those who live in India and claim Indian citizenship.

Both these policy proposals were seen to be targeting the Muslim community in India even as critics warned that the poor, the unlettered, and women among the majority Hindu community would suffer equally on account of an NRC that demanded historical or legacy documents to establish the bonafides of citizens.

Despite such criticism and country-wide student protests, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remained unmoved, confident that its stance would help consolidate its Hindu base, especially in border states such as Assam and West Bengal.

Yet, interviews of more than 15,000 respondents conducted by the Lokniti-CSDS team across four major states that witnessed elections recently (including Assam and West Bengal) suggest considerable disquiet within the BJP’s own ranks regarding the NRC-CAA agenda. Amid rising dissatisfaction with the Narendra Modi-led central government, the data suggests the need for a rethink on these issues.

A plurality of voters oppose CAA while opinion on NRC is divided across the four states. While the opposition to CAA and NRC is higher among non-BJP voters, there is significant opposition within the party’s own ranks.

Eastern Dilemmas

Of the four states which saw elections recently, BJP had limited stakes in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The stakes were much higher in Assam, where it was defending its government, and in West Bengal, where it aimed to form the government for the first time.

In Assam, where the NRC has been a burning issue much before these elections, many BJP voters support the NRC but there is discontent over the way it was carried out, with claims about both wrongful exclusions and inclusions in the final list. The CAA evokes widespread opposition in the state, which saw massive protests against the law after it was implemented in 2019. BJP managed to win Assam but the elections also saw a leading light of the anti-CAA protests, Akhil Gogoi, win from the historic Sibasagar constituency despite being in jail.

In Bengal, the party failed to win power but has become the primary opposition party. But there appears to be limited appeal for the party’s CAA-NRC agenda among the party faithful even here.

Limited Appeal

It is not surprising that the opposition to the CAA-NRC agenda is much higher among Muslims. Very few Muslims support either of the two policies. Poor voters also seem much less supportive of these policies than other income classes.

But what should trouble the BJP much more is the significant opposition to the CAA-NRC agenda among the middle and upper classes, who form the bedrock of the party’s support base. It is these voters who have stood by the party for decades, even when other demographic groups were shy about voting for the BJP.

Over the past couple of Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has been able to win support from new voters among the rural poor and the uneducated. But its core base of educated middle class voters has still remained intact. This group has now been polarized by the CAA-NRC agenda.

Growing Discontent

It may be argued that the BJP has been able to advance electorally despite misgivings among voters. But the BJP-led alliance’s vote share in Assam was only one percentage point higher than that of the opposition alliance. In West Bengal, the BJP may have emerged as the main opposition party but its vote-share is 10 percentage points lower than that of Trinamool Congress.

These numbers highlight the limits of the politics of polarization, and need to be seen in the context of the growing discontent against the Modi-led central government over time. In five major states which saw elections over the past year (including Bihar), survey data show significant rise in dissatisfaction with the central government since 2015-16.

The growing dissatisfaction is unlikely to be simply because of the CAA-NRC issue. But at a time when its popularity is dipping across the country, the Modi-led government needs to rethink its approach to a polarizing issue that has divided even the BJP’s core support base.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.

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