As winter bites and temperatures plummet to levels not seen in more than a century, the political wildfire ravaging India shows no signs of abating. If Hong Kong was the protest story that dominated the headlines for much of 2019 , expect Indians who are pouring into the streets of major cities and small towns by the thousands each day to take up the mantle in 2020. Erupting in the wake of last December’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – which grants Indian citizenship to undocumented migrants from the “Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan”, but not Muslims – the current protests showcase the resolve of Indians to defend the world’s largest democracy from a ruthless assault by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The mass protests first began in the northeastern state of Assam, where the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) – supposedly intended to “curb illegal migration” from Bangladesh – rendered nearly 2 million people, both Hindu and Muslim, stateless overnight. At least a thousand were packed off to detention facilities as illegal migrants, but the government trivialised the debacle as a bureaucratic oversight that could be easily corrected once the nationwide CAA kicked in. In India, blood flows on Delhi’s JNU campus as Tiananmen Lite meets Democracy Lite A statement from Amit Shah, India’s home minister and a close Modi ally, promised the restoration of citizenship to Hindus – but his deafening silence on Muslims exposed the true colours of a regime that was willing to take its anti-Muslim policy to extremes, no matter how many critics, journalists and students were shot at, no matter how it upended the everyday lives of millions of citizens, and no matter how it battered the country’s already flailing domestic economy. Protests against the Modi government are nothing new. Farmers, factory workers, university students and caste groups have all agitated against specific policies since the prime minister took power in 2014. None of them, however, could draw crowds in the numbers seen since the CAA was signed into law, let alone sustain their political momentum on a pan-Indian scale. Try as it might to the paint the current unrest as a feckless move by Muslims with a smattering of liberals in their midst, the government cannot refute overwhelming evidence to the contrary. At the helm of the growing nationwide network of protests are students, academics, media professionals, filmmakers, celebrities, opposition party figures and activists – behind whom are ordinary citizens of all religions, with the Indian constitution as their rallying point. But the protests are not just about overturning the CAA. They are the desperate cry of a nation whose patience for Modi’s theatrics has run out, borne out of frustration with an economy that has tanked to unprecedented lows. Its GDP growth is expected to slip to an 11-year low of 5 per cent in 2019, according to the World Bank’s revised estimates. Modi thinks he is Xi Jinping, but protests show India is not China Having been promised rapid development and global superpower status by 2020, Indians are up in arms that this has not been delivered. Rising unemployment, dying industries, declining private investment and household consumption, an ailing public sector, banking crises and rising inflation are all signs that the prevailing economic, social and political order is teetering on the brink of collapse. Protesters are thus banding together to reclaim the India they identify with: a secular, diverse, pluralistic society in which they are free to travel, work, trade, marry and forge political alliances with whomever they like. Its tangible markers are railways, roads and internet cables – an infrastructural grid that maps out a well-connected economy and market. Strategically timed, the CAA follows a series of moves launched to help the BJP paper over the growing cracks in the economy. As criticism mounted over Modi’s economics, particularly his botched demonetisation exercise and the shoddy implementation of a goods and services tax, the BJP feared that allegations of ballot tampering in the May 2019 elections and the legal cases challenging its victory would catch on, putting the party in greater peril at upcoming provincial assembly elections. With the government fast losing the trust of the people, it was evident that Modi and his ministers would soon face their wrath, making the BJP’s hold over power shaky. Getting out of the predicament seemed impossible – unless they reached for the Hindu nationalism card. This would effectively serve as a dog-whistle to thousands of hard core Hindutva supporters affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent. With little fear of legal consequences, these supporters could be expected to hit the streets, stage small-scale riots, incite fear among citizens and create the media optics necessary to overwhelm the popular backlash against Modi. Beginning with the revocation of Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy last August, and the Supreme Court’s November verdict on the Babri Masjid – which allocated entirely to Hindus the site where the demolished 16th-century mosque once stood – Modi’s Hindu nationalism seemed to march on triumphant. Why protests in India over the new citizenship law are much ado about nothing His plan proceeded apace until it reached New Delhi. There, it encountered the first signs of a resistance, when students of some of India’s renowned public universities began protesting peacefully against the CAA. It was no coincidence that these students were the vanguard of the protest movement: the public university system in India is perhaps living proof of where the country is headed if the BJP’s plans come to pass. Defined by a spoils system that rewards supporters, friends and clients for their loyalty and subservience to its leaders, Hindu nationalism has bolstered corruption, nepotism and academic incompetence in the universities, leaving little room for nurturing the talent and skills needed to compete in the global marketplace. Vice-chancellors with questionable academic credentials run university administrations like personal fiefdoms, hiking fees, cutting back on funds, withholding scholarships, surveilling students and teachers, securitising the premises and undertaking unnecessary campus infrastructural projects which generate huge kickbacks for a select few. As these political appointees help dismantle the higher education system from within, the party’s propaganda machinery and national media craft a narrative portraying students as undeserving recipients of state welfare and a thorn in the authorities’ side. Imagine the cheek of this lot, who should have refrained from questioning privileged elders and accepted their fate as responsible members of a Hindu society! This narrative has provided the necessary cover and justification for the brutal violence visited on campuses by police and right-wing militias armed to the teeth, particularly in the past few weeks. In a spectacular example of blowback, however, the brutal crackdown in universities has inflamed older adults from across the social spectrum, who have themselves taken to the streets. The regime’s calculations to energise its political base have been proven right – but what makes the current situation a powder keg is the failure of its gamble that uncorking violence would reduce a frightened citizenry to obedience. Hindu American divide deepens as protests rage over India’s citizenship law The world is finally taking notice. Some members of the United States Congress have asked publicly if India is in danger of becoming an “illiberal democracy”, while the UNHCR has urged the government to address “the people’s grievances”. Investors have been spooked, and have pulled billions of dollars in investment from the economy. Bloomberg reports that the US$2 trillion stock market is losing its valuation premium, while financial experts warn that India could be headed for a structural slowdown. The West’s romance with Modi’s India as a counterforce to China’s dominance may be coming to an end, and India is certain to lose its place among the rising Asian powers of the millennium, if it hasn’t already. The Modi era in Indian history may soon be remembered as an age of wilfully wasted opportunities. Dr Nisha Mathew is a historian of the Indian Ocean region based at the National University of Singapore Sign up now for our 50% early bird offer from SCMP Research: China AI Report. The all new SCMP China AI Report gives you exclusive first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments, and actionable and objective intelligence about China AI that you should be equipped with.