Kolkata: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has officially dropped its National Register for Citizens (NRC) push in West Bengal a year after former party president Amit Shah’s strident pitch in favour of it raised concerns among leaders about voter backlash.
The move comes about four months before the West Bengal assembly elections are scheduled, in which the BJP is looking to score its maiden victory in the state and oust Mamata Banerjee’s 10-year Trinamool Congress government.
According to BJP party insiders, the decision to drop the NRC from the poll pitch follows a recent ground-level review by top leaders that suggested the party might lose steam if it goes ahead with it.
But the BJP insists it’s committed to starting preliminary work for the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in January, adding that this will make an NRC redundant.
While the CAA seeks to ease Indian citizenship for immigrants belonging to six minority communities from three of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — the NRC is aimed at identifying and deporting illegal immigrants. Together, the two were seen as a means to expel Muslim immigrants from India. Bengal and Assam, both of whom border Bangladesh, are home to several immigrants.
Even though the BJP claims the CAA and NRC are not related, Shah had, on multiple occasions, sought to link them. It was in this context that he made his well-known and widely-satirised “aap chronology samajhiye” remark.
However, the NRC experiment in Assam last year — ordered by the Supreme Court but conducted while the state is ruled by a BJP government — exploded as the final list ended up naming many Hindus. This is a gamble that BJP leaders say it’s not ready for in Bengal.
‘A tedious exercise’
The shift in the BJP’s policy was clear as Shah refrained from mentioning the NRC during his two-day Bengal tour over the weekend. Avoiding questions on the NRC, he said the government will implement the CAA in Bengal once the Covid vaccination process starts. “The implementation (of the CAA) was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Rules will be framed soon,” he said.
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said the NRC is now off the party’s priority list, pointing out that it was not the party’s decision to implement it in Assam either.
“We did it as it was ordered by the Supreme Court. There is no such judicial compulsion in Bengal. So, there is no discussion about NRC in the party or in the government,” the BJP’s state in-charge for Bengal said.
Discussing the CAA, Vijayvargiya added: “We will give citizenship to the persecuted refugees from Bangladesh, who have been living in Bengal for ages without having any right. And it is not an election plank, it is our promise to the people. We will fulfil this. First phase of work for CAA will start in January.”
According to the BJP’s state leadership, the NRC has the potential to drive away a section of its Hindu voters after what happened in Assam.
“In Assam, we saw how thousands of Hindus were moved out of the NRC due to some technical issues. It is indeed a tedious exercise and we cannot afford to have such mistakes in Bengal now. It may affect our electoral prospects,” said Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh.
Asked about Shah’s statements earlier on “weeding out infiltrators”, he said: “If we implement the CAA, which we will do soon, the infiltrators will be identified anyway. We won’t need an NRC-like exercise then. Moreover, the identified foreigners are still in Assam camps, and they could not be deported. So, there are complex issues that the party is now dealing with.”
A top leader of the BJP national executive committee, requesting anonymity, highlighted another important point: “Our government cannot take a decision that will affect our relationship with Bangladesh.”
The leader added: “Following the NRC in Assam, and the decision to identify and deport foreigners, we suffered a rough phase with Bangladesh. In the wake of China-related problems at eastern and northeastern borders, we cannot antagonise Bangladesh. So, the government and the party decided to call it off for the time being.”
Bengal BJP general secretary Sayantan Basu said the party wants to do everything possible to provide citizenship to Hindu refugees, adding that the NRC will become unnecessary after that.
“The CAA rules will be framed soon. But we have suggested that a refugee only needs to declare on paper that he is a Hindu, and citizenship will be granted. They will not need any old documents,” Basu said, seeking to assuage concerns about the documentation people will need to be eligible under the CAA.
‘Politics of 51%’
While the BJP has given up on the NRC, political analysts doubt its exact impact, pointing out that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already made it an election issue and, in public addresses, has been criticising the BJP for seeking to divide the people.
“The BJP in Assam is still dealing with the aftermath of the NRC. It does not matter what they want and what they plan. Mamata Banerjee has already made NRC an election issue. And now, Amit Shah has to go on saying that they will not bring NRC here, in order to get absolute Hindu consolidation,” said political analyst Prof. Biswanath Chakraborti.
“Secondly, bringing NRC in Bengal means souring the relationship with Bangladesh. Senior BJP leaders, led by general secretary B.L. Santhosh, came to Bengal and analysed the ground situation,” Chakraborti added.
Vijayvargiya answered a question about the BJP’s shift in stance by saying it was the central government’s call. “Unlike Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, we are not into the politics of 30 per cent of the people,” he said, invoking the allegation of minority appeasement the BJP often lobs at Mamata.
“We are doing politics for 51 per cent of the people, whom we see as our potential voters. We have Hindus, minorities and Dalits and all others here. We are not going to isolate anyone as Trinamool Congress wishes to portray. So, we do not need an NRC now. It is the central government’s call and the party supports it,” he said.
Vijayvargiya was not willing to comment on the National Population Register (NPR) either — in 2019, when the Union cabinet approved an update of the NPR, a UPA-era initiative, it was seen by many as a precursor to a nationwide NRC.
“There has been no word on NRC or NPR. We are, at present, only concerned about the CAA. It is our commitment to the people living in Bengal, and we will fulfil that. It is our priority,” he said.
Vijayvargiya also accused CM Mamata of lying to the people about the NRC and the NPR.
“She is unnecessarily spreading lies about NRC and NPR. We have never seen a politician holding a constitutional post spread such lies,” he added.
The Trinamool Congress, in turn, said the BJP’s “earlier promises” on the NRC were “divisive lies”, adding that they never had an intention to implement it.
“The BJP is a party of lies and Amit Shah heads the party. They spread lies to divide people. The NRC was implemented in Assam after the SC’s order. They do not have the intention or the power to do that,” said Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy. “Moreover, after the NRC (in Assam), Hindu Bengalis were dropped from the list. Bengali Muslims remained there. So, the BJP understood that it would not take them anywhere. And the BJP is an expert in going back on promises.”
The CAA, he said, “evoked such emotional outrage across the country that the BJP was forced to take a reverse turn”. “Mamata Banerjee held many protest rallies and then Shaheen Bagh happened. That ended in a massive communal riot in Delhi,” he added.