Modi, Suddenly, Does Not Look Invincible Anymore — Here’s Why

Even though the political opposition is weak and fragmented, popular opposition against Modi is showing its might.

8 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
  1. The CAA-NRC protests have amounted to a vote of no-confidence (“avishwas”) in Modi. And let’s not forget, his second term has barely begun. There are four more years to go before 2024.
  2. Modi is not the only target of the slowly mounting popular discontent. Unlike in his first term, his name is now getting hyphenated with home minister Amit Shah.
  3. Nadella’s secularism hit Modi’s supporters where it hurts them the most. They had also believed hitherto that the tech world was a solid supporter of CAA-NRC, whereas only the hoi polloi opposed it.
  4. There is a pan-Indian realisation that the Modi-Shah leadership can—and must—be challenged.
  5. Even though the political opposition, decimated in 2014 and even more in 2019, is still weak and fragmented, popular opposition is showing its might.

Bad. Sad. Azaadi. The first two words were uttered by one of the most celebrated names in the tech business globally, an Indian who has the honour of heading one of the world’s most valuable companies. The third has become the battle cry of millions of angry young Indians, who have been protesting for the past two months like India has never seen since independence. They have been agitating in almost every city and town in every state and union territory.

The only ones not protesting are angry Kashmiris who, as the entire world knows, cannot do so in their state now downgraded as a UT.

A Vote of No-Confidence in Modi

All three words were directed at Prime Minister Nerendra Modi, who had, just eight months ago, won a bigger mandate than in 2014, and was hence riding a wave of domestic and international popularity not commanded by an Indian leader in a long time. And they deflated three other words —“sab ka vishwas”. The prime minister had spoken with great fanfare, in the Central Hall of Parliament, as his solemn promise to the nation when he began his new innings in office, adding to his earlier promise of “sab ka saath” and “sab ka vikas”.

The words ‘bad’, ‘sad’, and ‘azaadi’ have amounted to a vote of no-confidence (“avishwas”) in his most assertive action in the second term — passage of the patently discriminatory and unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act.

The CAA, along with its administrative siblings, National Register of Citizens (NRC) or National Population Register (NPR), have met with fierce resistance not only from the people, not only from the opposition parties, but also from some of the allies of the BJP. As many as ten state governments have stated they will not conduct NRC in their states. These include Bihar, where the BJP shares power with a party not quite known for being dependable. In recent months the ruling party has been unseated from power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. And let’s not forget, Modi’s second term has barely begun. There are four more years to go before 2024.

Modi is Not Looking Invincible Anymore

Let’s also not forget that millions of more Indians—frustrated youth without jobs, suffering farmers, and poor and middle-class families battered by the steepest rise in food prices amidst the slowest economic growth in a long time — are yet to register their own vote of no-confidence in his government.

Suddenly, India is not Modi-centric anymore.
Suddenly, Modi is not looking invincible anymore.

Furthermore, Modi is not the only target of the slowly mounting popular discontent. Unlike in his first term, his name is now getting hyphenated with home minister Amit Shah, who many BJP supporters view as his natural successor. More than Modi, Shah has taken charge of the CAA-NRC agenda, both inside and outside Parliament.

Home Minister Amit Shah in Jodhpur. 
Home Minister Amit Shah in Jodhpur. 
(Photo: PTI)

By calling “infiltrators” as “termites”, by repeatedly stating that implementation of CAA will be followed by NRC (which, more than anything else, has alarmed Muslims all over India), and by branding all the opponents of CAA-NRC as supporters of the “tukde-tukde” (‘Breaking India’) agenda, Shah has communalised Indian society and polity. This has been done in such a threatening manner that some commentators have even begun to wonder whether he is responsible for making Modi unpopular.

Why it is Bad and Sad

To explain why and how India is not Modi-centric anymore, let me again revert to the three words that are unnerving Modi’s supporters. They least expected Satya Nadella, the Hyderabad-born, Manipal-educated and Redmond-based CEO of Microsoft, to call the polarising effect of India’s new citizenship legislation “bad” and “sad”. They were even more appalled when he said, “I would love to see a Bangladeshi immigrant who comes to India and creates the next unicorn in India or becomes the next CEO of Infosys.”

As if this was not enough to upset Modi’s “bhakts”, who see every Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh as a demographic invader conspiring to create a new Kashmir in India’s north-east, Nadella also spoke about his multicultural roots.

“I am proud of the place from where I got my cultural heritage. I grew up in Hyderabad. I always think this place is best for growing up. We used to celebrate Eid, Christmas and Diwali. These three festivals are big festivals for us.”
Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft

If Nadella’s secularism hit Modi’s supporters where it hurts them the most, they also had another cause for worry. They had believed that the tech world was a solid supporter of CAA-NRC, whereas only the hoi polloi opposed it. None expressed this view more arrogantly and abrasively than Tejasvi Surya, the BJP MP from Bengaluru, India’s tech capital.

Tejasvi Surya
Tejasvi Surya
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Tejasvi Surya)

The Real ‘Puncture-Wallah’

Speaking at a pro-CAA rally in the city, he said: "Those working in Bangalore's IT and BT sectors — lawyers, IT professionals — those contributing to development…are standing at this rally. But illiterates — if you cut open their chest, you can't find two words inside them — just like puncturewallahs — are the only ones opposing this law."

“Puncturewallahs” was unmistakably a slur for poor, self-employed Muslims. But why blame the young first-time MP for indulging in such communal profiling? He was simply emulating the example set by the prime minister who had said at an election rally in Jharkhand last month that those agitating against CAA could be identified with their clothes.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
(Photo: PTI)

Oddly, Nadella has turned out to be a “puncturewalla”. He has punctured the BJP’s smug belief that denizens of the tech world are all backers of CAA. The Microsoft CEO is by no means the only person from the world of business viewing the current happenings in India with concern. Many Indian businessmen too are concerned, but they cannot speak their minds. Doing so is not as risk-free for them as it is for those operating from distant America.

Many Resonances of Azaadi

Now come to the third word “Azaadi”. If the elite is beginning to show its disenchantment with Modi, there is also growing rage in India’s streets. And no single word has come to express the sentiment against the Modi-Shah leadership more than “azaadi” (freedom), a word that transports India’s youth back the era of India’s freedom movement.

Hence, the portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and other leaders of that time seen in anti-CAA rallies.

Strangely, Jawaharlal Nehru’s portraits were missing even in the agitation by JNU students. Why? Why is even the Congress not invoking Nehru’s name, ideas and legacy as self-confidently as it should be in their campaign against CAA-NRC? This is a subject for another article.

The unique thing about the slogan “azaadi” is that it is both catchy and catch-all. To appreciate this, one only has to listen to spirited sloganeering by Kanhaiya Kumar, one of the most promising future leaders to emerge out of the student struggles in recent years.

Protesters are using it everywhere to draw attention to both what is detestable and what is desirable. “CAA se azaadi”, “NRC se azaadi”, “taanashaahi (dictoratorship) se azaadi”, “zor-zulm (repression and injustice) se azaadi …and so on. Also, “Gandhiwali azaadi”, “Ambedkarwali azaadi”, “kisan maange azaadi”, “behane maange azaadi”…and so on.

Pan-India Disenchantment

Remarkably, the word has also breached linguistic and geographical barriers in India. It is being heard as much in South Indian states as in UP and Bihar, as much in Bengal and Tripura as in Rajasthan and Haryana. I was in Chennai last week, and this is what a local journalist told me: “I am amazed that Tamilians are shouting Hindi slogans with azaadi. This has never happened before.”

What this suggests is that there is a pan-Indian realisation that the Modi-Shah leadership can — and must — be challenged.

The use of repressive measures to put down the protests, as happened in Jamia, AMU and JNU, has only strengthened the resolve of students and youth to take to the streets.

And if the BJP leadership had hoped that the anti-CAA protests could be presented as mainly Muslim protests, the demonstrators are defying and disproving them. Non-Muslims are marching alongside Muslims.

At Shaheen Bagh in the national capital, where a group of Muslim women began a peaceful sit-in that has now continued for over a month, something even more heartening is happening. There are all-religion prayers, something reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s pre-partition prayer meetings in Delhi, at the last of which he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, the current idol of the Hindutva Parivar.

Anti-Modi Does Not Mean Anti-India

The anti-CAA protesters are also affirming their absolute commitment to India’s unity and India’s core constitutional values in other ways, notwithstanding the home minister’s baseless jibe that they are inspired by the ‘tukde-tukde’ agenda and instigated by pro-Pakistani agents. The tricolour is omnipresent in anti-CAA rallies. The singing of the national anthem, and collective reading of the Preamble of the Constitution, have become defiant denunciations of the government-sponsored propaganda against them.

Yet another difference between Modi-Shah backers and anti-CAA protesters is also becoming increasingly stark. Almost all the protests so far have been nonviolent, despite their swelling size. In contrast, the other side is showing no compunction to use, and the threat to use, brute force. The naked violence of stick-wielding goons in JNU pales in comparison with the horrific reports of the anti-Muslim conduct of the cops in UP, where over 20 persons were killed in police firings.

This was publicly justified — “they were killed like dogs” — by the BJP president in West Bengal. The shocking spurt in verbal violence by supporters of the ruling party (their favourite slogan: “Desh ke gaddaaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” – Shoot the anti-nationals), accompanied by physical violence by the government machinery where it is under the ruling party’s control, has become a new feature of Modi 2.0.

Political Opposition is Weak But People Aren’t!

There are also other pointers that Modi 2.0, unlike Modi 1.0, can come under questioning from unexpected quarters. The monks of Ramakrishna Mission in Kolkata summoned rare courage to rebuke the prime minister for misusing their platform for making a political speech on CAA.

Many Bollywood stars lent their voice to the nationwide condemnation of the violence at JNU. And at least a small section of the pro-government media has begun to speak in ways that are adding to the overall discomfort of the ruling party. Thus, even though the political opposition, decimated in 2014 and even more in 2019, is still weak and fragmented, popular opposition is showing its might.

Again, let’s not forget — this government has not even completed one full year in office in its second term. What all is in store for the remaining four years remains ominously unpredictable. However, one thing is crystal clear. India is not Modi-centric anymore.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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