Kolkata: The Bharatiya Janata Party, which championed the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), is now downplaying the implementation of CAA and has virtually dropped the NRC five months ahead of the crucial assembly elections in Bengal.
While interacting with the media, after the completion of a two-day visit in West Bengal, home minister Amit Shah said: “Rules for CAA are yet to be framed. Because of coronavirus, the exercise on CAA cannot take place. When the vaccination process starts and we manage to break the cycle of the coronavirus, we will think about it.”
When the reporter pressed on the NRC issue, Shah dodged the question.
The idea of offering citizenship based on religious identity paid huge dividends to the BJP in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The saffron party bagged 18 of the 42 seats from this eastern state and clocked over 41% vote share.
The last election propelled BJP as the principal opposition to the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). BJP is currently focusing on winning the upcoming election, ending Mamata Banerjee’s 10-year-rule in the state.
But why is the BJP – months before the key assembly elections – distancing itself from the CAA-NRC issue, which once helped it electorally?
TMC also exploited the NRC issue, as it brought fear among Muslims. This strategy of TMC even helped them electorally. In the 2019 bypolls held in November in three assembly segments, TMC won all three.
Interestingly, five months before the bypolls, BJP was leading in the parliamentary election in two of these three segments with over 45,000 votes. Riding on the NRC issue, TMC managed to reverse the Lok Sabha trend.
After the passage of the citizenship bill in the parliament, when protests broke out across the country, TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee was seen leading the protest from the front in Bengal.
For consecutive days, Banerjee marched crisscrossing Kolkata and adjoining Howrah. “As long as I am alive, I will never implement the citizenship law or NRC in the state. We will continue to protest democratically till this law is scrapped. If they want to implement it in Bengal, they will have to do it over my dead body,” she then said. Students, artists, people from civil society poured in as her rallies swelled up.
But even those had much deterrence. Just before the outbreak of COVID-19, Amit Shah, while speaking at a rally in Rajasthan, said, “We won’t backtrack even an inch on the Citizenship Amendment Act.”
“The Congress, Mamata Banerjee, SP, BSP, Arvind Kejriwal, communists, sab iska virodh kar rahe hai (all parties are opposing the CAA). Yeh sab parties ekattha ho jaayen lekin ek inch bhi wapas nahi jaayenge (Let all these parties unite but we will not backtrack even an inch),” Shah then said.
Since March last year, a lot has been changed. Now, the BJP is deliberately side-stepping from the CAA issue and dropping the NRC for the time being.
A top BJP leader from Bengal, who wished not to be named, told The Wire, “The party has done an internal survey on CAA and NRC, and after a critical assessment the leaders decided to make these not an issue for the upcoming poll.”
The party’s decision has irked Bongaon MP Santanu Thakur, who belongs to the Matua community. On November 22, Thakur openly expressed disappointment against his party’s position on CAA implementation and said, “No political party should play with the Matuas. I am not talking about Mamata Banerjee alone. The Matuas are not begging. The CAA must be implemented at the earliest. No political party can be an opponent of the Matua Mahasangha. No party can be more powerful than the Mahasangha. We are an independent political force of the future. Wherever there is a Matua population, we will not reach out to any political party. We will take part in the elections keeping our rights, our demands in the forefront.”
A week later, while addressing a gathering at Bongaon, Thakur said that no political party had kept its promises and urged the Matuas to be prepared to act independently in future.
BJP’s national general secretary and central observer for Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya made a quick move to pacify Thakur. Last week, Vijayvargiya visited the latter’s house in Thakurnagar and had a closed-door meeting. Vijayvargiya then told the media, “Rules are being framed to implement CAA in Bengal, soon. Even if the Bengal government opposes the implementation of CAA, we [Centre] will go ahead in implementing it.”
When further probed on NRC in Bengal, he said, “No NRC exercise in Bengal now.”
Earlier this month, when BJP national president J.P. Nadda visited Bengal, he said that rules for implementation of the Act were being framed, after which CAA will be implemented in letter and spirit.
Bengal BJP is certainly a divided house with respect to the implementation of CAA. Shah was scheduled to visit the Matua stronghold of Thakurnagar during his two-day Bengal tour, but the visit was cancelled it at the last moment.
BJP sources told The Wire, “A section of Matuas are unhappy with the delay in the implementation of CAA. Amitji (Shah) indicates that it’s not going to happen any time soon. This can be a trouble for the party in Matua populated areas.”
Realising the opportunity, Mamata recently visited Matua-dominated Bongaon and met representatives of the community. The TMC supremo held a public meeting there and said, “As the chief minister, I am saying all Matua people are Indian citizens. There’s no need for any new certificate for it.”
The Matuas are a closely-knit group in the state belong to the Namashudra (Dalit) community, who migrated from Bangladesh during and after Partition. The community has presence in six parliamentary seats in West Bengal, making it one of the biggest vote banks in the state. Although no official count exists, it is estimated that there are about two crore Namasudra voters.
In the last parliamentary election, the majority of Matua votes went to BJP, a primary reason for the party’s impressive electoral performance in the state. TMC is now trying hard to re-establish the lost connection with the community.
Earlier this month, state food and supplies minister Jyotipriya Mallick, district president of North 24 Parganas, where majority of Matua reside, gave an open invitation to BJP MP and Matua representative Shantanu Thakur to quit BJP and join the TMC.