New Delhi CNN  — 

Eight months ago, Narendra Modi was being hailed as India’s most popular leader in decades.

His incumbent Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a general election by a landslide in May, increasing its share of the vote on its impressive 2014 win.

Now, he’s facing the biggest challenge yet to his political supremacy.

Over the past few weeks, protesters across India have taken to the streets to oppose a new citizenship law that they say discriminates against Muslims. Demonstrations have continued, despite official bans on public gatherings and the risk of violence, which has already cost the lives of more than 20 protesters.

But neither Modi – nor the protesters – show any sign of backing down. Speaking at a rally in New Delhi in December, the Prime Minister said the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which came into effect on Friday, had “nothing to do with the Muslims of the soil of India.”

The CAA is only the latest move in a series of steps Modi has taken as part of his agenda to promote Hindu nationalism in secular India. And while Modi’s BJP still has plenty of popular support, some analysts warn that in the long run, these divisive moves could end up costing him. v

The danger for Modi

Modi has made no secret about being a Hindu nationalist – and last year he made several moves to further that agenda.

In the months since he was reelected, Modi has split the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, a move that gives the government in New Delhi greater control over the disputed Muslim-majority region.

His government has also published a new National Register of Citizens, which excludes 1.9 million of northeastern Assam state’s 33 million population.

Protesters hold placards and national flags as they stage a candle light vigil condemning Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India's new citizenship law, in Bangalore on January 14, 2020.

The register’s supporters say it will help root out undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, but critics fear it will lead to the deportation of Assam’s hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims, with claims to legal residency.

There are also concerns that the register will be used to justify religious discrimination against Muslims in the state.

But it was only when Modi passed the CAA in December that protesters took to the streets across the country in their thousands.

The controversial CAA promises to fast-track Indian citizenship for religious minorities from the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – but not if they are Muslim. Critics say the law threatens India’s secular foundations by marginalizing its 200 million Muslim minority population.

It’s difficult to tell how unpopular these policies are – although there have been numerous protests, there is no regular polling in India, where nearly 80% of the population are Hindu.

But one thing is for sure: over the past year, the BJP’s political footprint has shrunk. At its peak in 2018, the BJP ruled 21 of the country’s 29 states, either alone or with allies. After a series of blows in recent state elections, the BJP has been left with 15 states under its control.

Most recently, the BJP lost the eastern state of Jharkhand last month to a regional party-led alliance that includes the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party.

“With this mandate, the people have defeated BJP’s attempts to divide the society on caste and religious lines,” Congress party president Sonia Gandhi said in a statement.