Over the last week, in the thick of protests against the CAA and NRC in Bangalore, I have made many fresh discoveries.

For many years, particularly after December 1992, I had believed that secularism was on the wane in India in the wake of aggressive Hindutva propaganda mocking the founding philosophy of our nation.

But, recent events prove that it is indeed alive and resurgent. Streets and public places of our cosmopolitan city are awash with citizens affirming their belief in Ambedkar’s constitution and Gandhiji’s vision. What was enacted in 1950 is being reexamined. And the efforts of the BJP and RSS to subvert secularism are being repulsed.

Young India will not be cheated; it has seen unity in diversity and wants to safeguard it. Fake news spewed out on whatsapp groups, “godi media channels” or by trolls are misleading. Figures presented by Sujit Nair in a recent issue of the Editorial video tell a different story: Hindus, who account for almost 90% of the population in States like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh seem to have voted AGAINST Hindutva. The BJP/RSS narrative is blatantly wrong. The heart of the country is inherently secular.

The other discovery from the protests is the determination of people to stay away from traditional politicians. They have seen through the government’s feeble attempts to blame the agitation on provocateurs of the opposition. They have also noted how party politics has furthered the BJP agenda; it has not safeguarded the Constitution from its destroyers.

In full view of the nation, almost all BJP allies, meekly followed the leader’s line and voted for CAB in Parliament. Now that voters are on the warpath, they are flip-flopping and recanting. The Congress party’s opposition to the bill is sullied by the fact that the NPR and NRC are being built on foundations laid during the UPA regime. Left parties, TMC and AAP MPs alone have consistently attacked such dangerous proposals. But, except for West Bengal (where the TMC has taken the lead), we have seen a people’s protest all over the country. Some Congress leaders did gather at Raj Ghat and the DMK has taken out processions in Tamilnadu.

In places like Mumbai and Bangalore, however, there has not been a glimpse of political leadership, even at the fringes of the protest. A city Congress MLA was in fact firmly led off the dais at the mammoth rally at the Idgah grounds in Bangalore on December 23. Protestors are united in their distrust of traditional politicians, whom they perceive to be hypocritical and even dangerous.

We have been here before many times, in India and in many parts of the world. And we know that the outcome of our own agitation is doubtful and unclear. The promises of the Arab Spring and Tahrir square, which erupted in global explosions, were not fulfilled. The Hong Kong protests could well end in another Tiananmen square. Of course, the young agitators of these countries were aiming at a total transformation of the political framework.

At first glance, our present citizenship debate seems simpler and less radical. A closer look, however, reveals what is at stake: the very soul of the idea of India. Where do we go from here, though? Previous spontaneous movements in our country have captured the imagination, transformed political alignments and fizzled out. That is what happened to Jayaprakash Narayan in 1975-76, to the coalition under V. P. Singh and, more recently, to India Against Corruption in 2012-13.

Can a spontaneous, dispersed, predominantly youth-led protest, without formal organization or leadership remain in place till its aims are realised, without taking the political route?

The party in power did not anticipate strong opposition from voters who had sent it to Parliament very recently. But, the connection between electoral results and popular sentiment is always tenuous. A sizeable group of Indians had rejected Modi at the hustings, but these are not the only people on the ground today.

On the other hand, only a few months back, the BJP had met the legal requirements for capturing political power in Parliament. Deeply flawed voter registration procedures, the inherent defects of first-past-the-post voting, untrustworthy EVMs et al may have done their bit in delivering this outcome. Voters had also made tactical choices and expressed distinctly different preferences for national and State legislatures. Coupled with this is the BJP’s mastery of the science of electioneering, the relentless use of social media to mislead, divide and dazzle voters and the unscrupulous suppression of objective, honest journalism.

Nevertheless, many people on the streets are from erstwhile pro-Modi groups. They have clearly changed their minds after the Lok Sabha elections and are realizing their mistake. Some have even openly expressed regret through videos and social media posts. Which raises some interesting questions. Why did voters choose the BJP then and why are they now disillusioned?

Perhaps, the TINA (there-is-no-alternative) factor tempted fence-sitters to join the BJP fold, since many could not see Rahul Gandhi as a credible Prime Ministerial candidate. The prospect of another coalition of squabbling regional groups was also not attractive. But, there is another dimension too in the electoral choices made by voters.

When a country goes to the ballot, policy packages offered by political parties rarely coincide with the policy mix sought by every individual voter. I caught echoes of this dilemma in discussions with voters during the Karnataka Assembly election campaign of 2018. Many voters identify with specific groups and demand programs which promote their particular team. They see themselves predominantly as dalits or members of other castes, as a religious minority or majority; they gather together on the basis of class: their status as worker, professional or businessman. And they choose parties which cater to such identification. Voters have concerns and beliefs that go past group identities too.

But they took the basic constitutional issues of democracy and secularism as settled, even though parties like the BJP are still seeking to overthrow the consensus achieved in 1950. A voter who wants stability and progress but rejects Hindutva often sacrifices the latter preference for the former; he votes for Modi hoping for development but also praying that the BJP will not misuse his mandate to destroy the secular fabric of the nation.

Political parties play the same game by offering oversimplified binary choices, which conceal their main agenda beneath an attractive inducement. For the BJP, the 2014 and 2019 narratives were economic development and national security, but the real purpose was to realize the RSS dream of a Hindu India. These illusions of voters have been swept away now that the government has swiftly used its Parliamentary majority to accomplish its main objective.

That voters and the government are not in step on the question of secularism cannot be concealed any longer. This is what the protestors are clearly signaling: many of us never gave the BJP a mandate for Hindutva.

Which is probably why voters have once again lost faith in traditional politicians and taken to the streets. They always knew that politicians lie, that they oversimplify and manipulate facts. Many voters told me so during the 2018 ground campaign in 2018 and they are saying it again vociferously now. They are not turning to the usual political saviours to bail them out of the present crisis, for they have seen them bartering away the heart of our Constitution. People of all backgrounds and beliefs are today reclaiming their secular birthright.

Can this be done with the present semi-anarchic dispersed agitation? There must be people’s representatives to negotiate a settlement with government authorities. To truly understand and present their demands and oversee implementation. Stray talk of setting up yet another political party to safeguard secularism is already doing the rounds but this can only muddy the waters. The mechanics of pushing through the people’s agenda is still to be worked out.

Agitators have an immediate and a long term aim. Today’s demand is withdrawal of the CAA, NRC and NPR, all of which evoke deepseated fears of an untrustworthy and ruthless administration. The explanations and pacificatiions of the Centre are no longer acceptable. If the Act itself is not junked after passage in Parliament, it must at least be paused. The gazette notification bringing it into effect must not be issued. Every misgiving must be closely examined by a Parliamentary committee with full representation for all points of view. And concerned citizens must watch over its proceedings to keep politicians in line with the views of their voters.

The NRC and NPR must stay in abeyance or be scrapped, since, as we all now know, there are endless possibilities of misuse. Suitable exceptions must be legally introduced to safeguard accords concluded with north eastern States, including Assam, negotiated with difficulty over several years. The people’s protest must not relent till the immediate agenda is realized.

But there is a larger program too. By reaffirming the commitment of a fresh generation of Indians to the secularism of our founding fathers, the protestors are firmly rejecting the RSS concept of Hindu India. All political parties must now take note of this reality. Few of them today boldly advocate a secular agenda or reject backdoor attempts to undermine the Constitution. Vigilance and forbearance are essential to prevent repetition of divisive and nefarious ways of winning votes.

This calls for a new political approach and greater vigilance and restraint for voters too. We must be aware, intelligent and logical or politicians will mislead us again with messages of hatred. The most heartening slogans at the CAA protests in Bangalore were Hindustan Zindabad and Mohabbat Zindabad. We must redefine the meaning of patriotism in the language of love and solidarity. There are many courageous initiatives today to alert us to the creation and spread of fake news to manipulate popular sentiment and we must use and promote them.

We must set ourselves against divisive propaganda and fight common battles in unison. As Harsh Mander pointed out in his speech at the Idgah maidan in Bangalore, Muslims, dalits, adivasis, secular Hindus are all on the same side and must stay together. This can only be done by turning away from worthless debates to tackle pressing domestic problems: unemployment, falling growth rates, growing poverty and mounting corruption.

We need politics and good governance to tackle these issues. This is the lens through which we should now evaluate our political parties. This is what we must force our representatives to work for.

Renuka Vishwanathan is former Secretary to the Government of India, Cabinet Secretariat.