The West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be raising the electoral stakes in preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. At a meeting on Thursday, the state BJP leadership decided to campaign aggressively for the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
This will be in addition to three rath yatras it has planned to organise, all beginning early December and set to culminate at a rally in Kolkata at the end of January, which will be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It has been reported that senior leaders of the Bengal BJP believe that the Trinamool Congress and the government it runs have passed their sell-by dates and the time is opportune for an aggressive campaign that could net the party 26-28 Lok Sabha seats (out of 42) across the state. This is, of course, as delusive as you would be likely to get in a hurry: the panchayat elections earlier this year, like every single election since 2009, seemed to suggest that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party are not just most popular electoral forces in the state, but the most popular by a huge distance.
Clearly, the BJP is still labouring under the woeful (and wilful) misapprehension that Hindi heartland-style communal polarisation can work in Bengal, despite the evidence that has been piling up for decades.
Let’s look, in concrete terms, at what the BJP hopes to achieve through its two-pronged campaign. First, the rath yatras. They will be flagged off from Tarapith, a pilgrimage centre in Birbhum district, Gangasagar in South 24 Parganas, where an annual religious congregation is held on the lines of the Kumbh, and from a temple in Cooch Behar district, in North Bengal. The plan is that the yatras will each cover 14 constituencies (thus covering all 42).
On the face of it, it’s not quite clear how exactly this outreach programme will energise the BJP to such an extent that its Lok Sabha tally will increase 13 or 14 times since 2014, when it was riding a distinct ‘wave’ powered by then prime ministerial contender Narendra Modi. There is no wave in favour of the BJP that is visible to the naked eye, in Bengal or, indeed, in the country as a whole. In fact, if there is any wave at all, it’s one that appears likely to drown the ruling party, beset as it has been by an economy that is going down the tube, the Rafale issue that is assuming ever-increasing salience and is robbing the Union government of its much-vaunted ‘anti-corruption’ plank and the general discount on ‘good governance’.
The BJP probably knows as well as commentators, citizens and neutrals that it has no hope of finishing with a double-digit tally in West Bengal, and that too, in the lower reaches. But there may be a small difference if it can keep its momentum going in tribal-dominated constituencies and if the Trinamool fails to repair the damage caused by the fact of corruption and resource leaks and the perception of it. The BJP might be able to manage three or four seats – Alipurduar, Jhargram and Purulia, for instance – given that they are practically certain to lose out in the constituencies it represents in the current Lok Sabha: Asansol and Darjeeling. The equations in the latter area have changed drastically, ruling out a Gorkha-backed ride for the BJP; and in the former constituency, as the panchayat elections showed, the party has lost serious ground.
The other prong of the BJP strategy looks somewhat curious. What exactly does the BJP hope to gain by mounting a high-octane campaign for the passage of the citizenship amendment bill? First, a look at its provisions is necessary. The bill proposes to cut down the eligibility criterion of residence for a narrow category of migrants in the matter of grating citizenship. This category consists of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. From an all-India perspective, the campaign over the bill has a certain dynamic, but in West Bengal, it seems at the same time too narrow and broad to mean anything to voters.
Why should Bengal voters be in anyway concerned about refugees/immigrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan? And further, why should they bother about Buddhist, Christian, Parsi and Sikh immigrants from Bangladesh? So, the only category that may have an electoral bearing are Hindus from Bangladesh.
The original bill stipulated eligibility criteria of 12 months of continuous residence in India at the time of the grant of citizenship as well as residence for 11 of the past 14 years. The amendment bill aims to cut the 11-year residence criterion to six. How will that help Hindus who migrated from East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh to West Bengal? Not many of them have come to India in the past 14 or 11 years, let alone a measly six. They have been in Bengal for decades. Most of them and their children have been born in Bengal. The amendment bill offers them zilch.
It has been suggested in the media that the Matua community, which is mainly spread across parts of North 24 Parganas and Nadia (and in some other contiguous districts in low density) will benefit. They can affect electoral outcomes in one Lok Sabha constituency and around 10 Assembly constituencies. The Matua community has been with the Trinamool Congress since its rise. It is true that some of them have not yet been able to acquire citizenship, but an overwhelming majority of them have been in the areas they inhabit for decades. It’s not quite clear how the tweak envisaged by the amendment bill will help them. The Centre can sort out their problems now, as things stand legally.
It is unlikely that an entire community will be so quickly and easily swayed by the kind of gimmickry and sleight of hand that has become the trademark of the BJP and the governments it runs. It is, of course, an entirely different matter that the provisions of the bill, being discriminatory, could well attract sanctions under the right to equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
Updated Date: Oct 12, 2018 16:49 PM