Pro Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the British parliament. (Christopher Furlong/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Can India’s NRC exercise draw lessons from the Brexit ambiguity?

Public sentiment is fickle, and this has been demonstrated to us across nations and across times. It is this reason why politicians have to exercise some restraint as they can invoke public sentiments in a way that can catapult an entire continent into a phase of uncertainty.

In the case of India, the National Register of Citizens is one such area where there is still ambiguity as the opposition tries to politicise the issue and invoke public sentiments on religious grounds.

It seems that our politicians must learn from the experience of the UK and its indecision on a similar subject that led to a unique political experiment, that is to hold a referendum to determine whether the UK should be a part of the European Union or not. This referendum catapulted the entire country and the region into a period of dilemma as even after two years, the uncertainty surrounding the debate on the likely outcome of Brexit, persists.

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The decision to hold the first referendum was done due to political pressure to renegotiate the terms of engagement of UK with the EU and it demonstrated how there was a shift in responsibility of “taking a decision on a public issue” back to the common subjects of UK.

As noble as the experiment was, it assumed that every British citizen would evaluate all available facts and then take a call that was in their best interest. However, the fact remains that for most functional democracies, representatives are elected solely because individual citizens don’t have the time or expertise to do in depth evaluation of public policies before taking a decision.

As a result, individual citizens delegate this responsibility to their elected representatives who have an incentive (of re-election) to undertake such decisions based on thorough and in-depth research. Thus, by re-delegating the responsibility to the people, the uncertainty regarding the future of UK’s relation with the EU got significantly amplified as Britons voted for an exit from the EU without an idea of what a post exit relationship with EU would look like.

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Major reasons behind this decision to vote for an exit were concerns on immigration and sovereignty of the UK and the economic interests of its people. Unfortunately, these concerns didn’t consider the fact that the UK already enjoys great deals with the EU as it had its own sovereign currency and large budget rebates and its own immigration checks.

By far, the deal between the UK and EU was in itself unique even before the referendum so a better deal would definitely have been difficult for the UK to renegotiate. The critical issue underlying Brexit was the trend against hyper globalisation as the Global North had started to have concerns against the Washington Consensus while the Global South had shed all its apprehensions as it started to embrace a globalised world. The apprehensions of Britons were legitimate.

However, the question worth asking is if a referendum is the only solution to these apprehensions; and the answer in hindsight is perhaps not. Two years post the vote for Brexit, nothing is clear regarding the future course of action for the UK. Post Brexit, UK has witnessed a stagnant real wage rate while it has witnessed a slower than usual growth which has made commentators signal at this being a new normal post the Brexit. One of the reasons why there is no clarity on what the post Brexit UK or EU would look like is the fact the domestic politics within the UK, which makes it difficult for the British Prime Minister to get her negotiated deal passed through the parliament.

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While UK is scheduled to officially exit the EU on 29 March, both would prefer to have a deal as most European economies are fragile and would not like a resultant economic uncertainty to usher in a recession across the continent. Thus, it is evident that should the UK exit from the EU then there should be a deal between the EU and the UK in the interests of economic stability across the region and the global economy.

But given that there’s a need for a deal, domestic politics in the UK is preventing the deal that the British Prime Minister is attempting to present to the parliamentarians as they fear that the deal would leave the UK worse off than it is now. Thus, what is in effect being discussed is the possibility of a second referendum on the issue despite the fact that the first one costed the UK almost 130 million pounds.

The point still remains that another referendum could potentially bring in greater uncertainty to the discourse and this uncertainty comes due to the cost of indecision of the elected legislators to take an informed call on the subject. Besides that, another important factor worth considering is the time that has gone into negotiations with the EU for the current deal. Rather than a second referendum on the issue, a debate on the subject by legislators would help highlight merits of both, the new deal and the status quo. Post such a debate, the legislators must bring an end to the issue by taking a decision.

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Similarly, in the Indian context, there is enough ambiguity regarding the post NRC period as there’s no clear road map or policy-backed action plan post the identification of illegal immigrants.

With Bangladesh refusing to acknowledge them as Bangladeshi nationals, our problem worsens as deportation may not be an easy conclusion to the exercise.

What is also required is a robust system to prevent such immigration in the future. It is imperative that Indian legislators learn from their British counterparts and take a decision on the subject and bring in some clarity or else, the NRC would just add to uncertainty in the region which would fuel public sentiment against religious and caste identities, which in turn could potentially turn into a prolonged violent conflict.

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Without a sound road map for the future, the entire state or the region could face uncertainty, and it would take years before we could revert back to a new normal. A decision on the post NRC order is required, just as a decision for the UK’s deal post Brexit is required and the sooner it comes, the better it is for both the regions.

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