NRC fear factor led to BJP’s defeats in West Bengal bypolls; unseating TMC in 2021 may be tricky if it fails to reshape narrative

  • The BJP should take a long, hard look at the West Bengal bypoll results because the current saffron unit rarely loses electoral momentum
  • In line with its canvassing during the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s bypoll campaign also brought the issue of illegal immigration by Bangladeshis to the forefront and promised to update the NRC nationwide to identify infiltrators
  • Shortly after the TMC performed a clean sweep, Mamata Banerjee was quoted as saying, ‘NRC is one of the main reasons why people rejected the BJP’

The BJP has received a setback in the Assembly bypolls in West Bengal after the high of the 2019 Lok Sabha election where it breached Mamata Banerjee’s citadel and bagged 18 seats. The scale and manner of BJP’s breach in the polls held in April-May 2019 and the 40 percent vote share (up from 17 percent in 2014) it received had stunned analysts, the Opposition and perhaps even the party itself. Since the by-elections to state Assembly in three constituencies were held just a few months after that stunning performance, the BJP was widely expected to build on that success.

As it turned out, the ruling Trinamool Congress negated the BJP’s momentum and showed admirable fight in performing a clean sweep, comfortably retaining Karimpur and winning Kaliaganj and Kharagpur Sadar seats for the first time. The party is jubilant and Mamata is delirious. The nature of the TMC’s celebration over its success in three bypoll seats reflects the amount of pressure it was under. The mercurial chief minister even claimed that the BJP’s time in Bengal is up.

Is she reading too much into the results of three bypoll seats? We shall shortly delve into that question but the BJP’s unexpected reverses in Bengal and the turn of events in Maharashtra have galvanised the rivals and already sparked talks of an ‘Opposition turnaround’. A strong party at the Centre will eventually create an equally strong resistant force. That is a law of nature. Besides, the BJP’s rise under Narendra Modi has been so steep and dramatic that every reverse tends to get played up.

That said, the BJP should take a long, hard look at the West Bengal bypoll results because the current saffron unit rarely loses electoral momentum. West Bengal is a strong focus area for the central leadership for more reasons than one. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is both a political cause and an electoral issue for the BJP, and Bengal (along with Assam) has undergone a demographic change due to large-scale infiltration. The discontent that illegal immigration has caused on the ground makes West Bengal ripe for the BJP to make further inroads.

In line with its canvassing during the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s bypoll campaign also brought the issue of illegal immigration by Bangladeshis to the forefront and promised to update the National Registration of Citizens (NRC) nationwide to identify infiltrators. As mentioned, the issue is of particular relevance in Bengal where (largely) Muslim infiltrators are widely believed to have received patronage from successive state governments (the Left Front and now the TMC) in return for votes.

Quick to learn its lessons from side-effects of NRC implementation in Assam, the BJP also promised to bring the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), that now lies in Rajya Sabha, before embarking on a nationwide NRC. The CAB seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, change the definition of “illegal immigrants” and allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims are excluded. In October, Union Home Minister Amit Shah clarified that there will be no NRC without the passing of the CAB.

In his words, “Before NRC, the BJP government is going to bring the Citizen (Amendment) Bill. All Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian refugees who have come to India under this bill will be given citizenship of India forever. I want to assure all Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees that you will not be forced to leave India…”

Since the exclusion of Muslims has generated a heated debate, the BJP has argued that it is only the religious minorities in these Islamic nations who face religious atrocities and therefore India is their natural and only refuge. Muslims, even if they do face persecution, have other Islamic nations to seek shelter. In his piece for ORF, distinguished fellow Kanchan Gupta points out the unstated purpose behind BJP’s CAB push: “…to help out Bengali-speaking Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who migrated from Bangladesh into India and have been living here as ‘illegal immigrants’. If the CAB were to get parliamentary approval then half or more of those excluded from Assam’s NRC would qualify for Indian citizenship.”

The reasoning seems sound enough. The BJP is trying to push the narrative of identifying Muslim infiltrators through the NRC and providing a safety net to others through the CAB. Armed with this narrative, the BJP went into the bypoll campaign in West Bengal, hoping to further consolidate its presence. And yet, results show that not only has the BJP lost in seats where it performed well in Lok Sabha elections, but the party has recorded a downward trend in its overall vote share in West Bengal (39.3 percent). What happened?

The answer has been provided by none other than the West Bengal chief minister, and surprisingly, at least a part of the BJP agrees with her. Shortly after the TMC performed a clean sweep, Mamata was quoted as saying: “So many years after Independence, if you ask someone to prove citizenship, is it right? Suddenly, if someone says you have no place here… NRC is one of the main reasons why people rejected the BJP. The BJP always uses divisive politics and created panic in the name of NRC…”

Two BJP candidates who lost in the by-elections agree with Mamata’s assessment. The BJP’s Kamal Chandra Sarkar who lost the Kaliaganj seat to TMC’s Tapan Deb Singha by 2,414 votes was quoted, as saying, in the article mentioned above: “It is indeed a scare over NRC. We failed to reach out to people and make them understand the issue. People are scared of the NRC… All minority votes went to the TMC. They got a large section of Rajbonshi and Hindu votes too because of the NRC scare.”

“NRC scare was a factor. TMC went door-to-door, spreading misinformation about NRC. Another factor was that the Left votes went to the TMC,” stated the BJP’s Joy Prakash Majumder who was defeated by the TMC’s Bimalendu Sinha Roy by 23,910 votes. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh conceded that “TMC was able to mislead people on the NRC issue in some areas.”

The NRC was supposed to be the BJP’s trump card. How did it backfire so spectacularly that both the party and the Opposition have identified it as the cause of the BJP’s setback? The answer to this question lies in the timing of the NRC in Assam, the way the issue played out in West Bengal’s bordering state and the collateral damage caused by its repercussions that provided the Opposition with a lethal weapon.

Both Assam and West Bengal are proximate to Bangladesh. The two states have had similar issues with large-scale infiltration and the political fallout of NRC in Assam, where a large number of Bengali-speaking Hindu immigrants were excluded (13 lakh in a draft list of 40 lakh) including in the final draft. This provided the TMC with the chance to base its campaign on the fear factor surrounding the NRC and enable it to target the BJP’s core vote bank — Hindus. The NRC, in effect, not only caused an even greater consolidation of Muslim vote bank behind the TMC, it eroded the BJP’s Hindu voter base in Bengal. The result is evident.

While blaming the NRC for the party’s debacle in Bengal, BJP insiders say the timing of NRC in Assam proved problematic for the party. Although the decision was taken by the Supreme Court and the entire process was monitored by the apex court led by former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, the BJP had undeniably owned the political authorship of it. In hindsight, the party now feels that implementation of the NRC without the safety net of the CAB resulted in the alienation of its core vote bank.

The final NRC list in Assam excluded over 19 lakh people among 3.29 crore residents, and it pleased no one — least of all the BJP which suspected that a large number of Muslim infiltrators had managed to procure fake documents to confirm their citizenship while Hindu refugees were left out.

Assam BJP MLA Dilip Kumar Paul who represents the Silchar constituency, told the media shortly after the release of final list in Assam that the names of “around 95 to 96 percent illegal Bangladeshi Muslims” have appeared in the list. “On the other hand,” he continued, “a major portion of Hindus have been excluded from the list. We can never accept this NRC where illegal Bangladeshi Muslims have been included.”

The political fallout of the NRC was so damaging for BJP that the party ultimately distanced itself from it, disowned the Supreme Court-monitored process and claimed that it will be implemented across India anew, including again in Assam, but not before the passing of the CAB.

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