The Congress has decided not to take the bait thrown at it by the Bharatiya Janata Party on the controversy over the exclusion of 40 lakh residents from the draft report of the National Register of Citizens in Assam.

After a prolonged discussion on the issue at the meeting of the party’s working committee on Saturday, the Congress took a conscious decision that its members should not make any provocative statements or highlight the fact that the BJP is using the NRC report to target Muslims as this would only propagate the saffron party’s communal agenda.

Instead, the working committee was of the view that the Congress should tom-tom the fact that the NRC is their baby since the process of identifying “illegal citizens” in Assam was initiated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was also decided to cite facts and figures to nail the BJP’s claim that the Congress was soft on matters of national security. At the same time, the party’s Assam unit was asked to provide necessary legal help to citizens whose names have been left out of the citizens’ register.

The Congress party’s position was firmed up days after BJP president Amit Shah sought to make the NRC report a national poll issue when he declared in Parliament and at a press conference that it was only his party which had shown the courage to implement the NRC and curb illegal infiltration. On the other hand, Shah said, the Congress failed to act on it even though the Assam accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. While demanding that the opposition parties clarify their stand on illegal infiltration, he accused the Congress of not being sufficiently tough on national security.

Aggressive approach

The BJP’s aggressive pitch had virtually drowned out the Congress party’s initial reaction. The Congress did make the point that the NRC was initiated by the United Progressive Alliance government and also criticised the implementation of this exercise. As a result, the Congress stance come across as being defensive and apologetic.

The party was also perceived to be supporting the case of illegal migrants for vote-bank politics as it was seen to be working in tandem with the Trinamool Congress which has raised the pitch on the exclusion of 40 lakh names from the list with its leader, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, warning that this report would trigger a “civil war and a blood bath”.

Several Congress leaders felt that the party had not been aggressive enough in owning the NRC as its project and, in the process, ended up ceding the first round to the BJP. “It is a fact that messaging is not our strong point, it has never been,” remarked a Congress office bearer. It was, therefore, left to Congress leaders from Assam, especially former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, to underline that it is their party and not the BJP which had begun the process of curbing infiltration of illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Realising that the party is losing the perception battle, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala adopted a far more strident stance on the NRC debate in his press briefing on the working committee deliberations. He reaffirmed the party’s commitment to the 1985 Assam accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi and pledged the party’s wholehearted support for the NRC process for which, he said, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sanctioned a whopping sum of Rs 489 crore and appointed 25,000 enumerators.

At the same time, he attempted to turn the tables on the BJP by accusing its president of lying on the subject of deportation of foreigners. Surjewala quoted official figures tabled by the Centre in Parliament to point out that it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government which deported 82,728 Bangladeshi foreigners between 2005-2013 as against a mere 1,822 by the Modi government.

Looking ahead

Well aware that the Congress could not overlook the fact that the draft citizens’ list had left out 40 lakh names, the party was also careful not to emphasise that this exercise had been used to target Muslims. While underlining that genuine Indian citizens be given full opportunity to prove their credentials, Surjewala took care to state that those omitted included indigenous Assamese people, Hindu Bengalis, Nepalis, Gorkhas, religious minorities, Indian citizens from other States who had settled down in Assam. The careful choice of words was clearly meant to defuse the BJP campaign, which is centered around accusing the Congress of supporting what it calls “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” (read Muslims) and, thereby, indulging in minority appeasement.

Worried that the Congress lost precious time in putting out its viewpoint more belligerently, the party is hoping the NRC controversy will not become a national issue. In this context, a Congress leader said, the next few days will be crucial as it will provide a clear picture about the “life of this issue”. While the Congress is hoping that the controversy will not travel beyond Assam and West Bengal, the BJP’s initial excitement on its success in cornering the main opposition party over the ticklish subject of undocumented migrants, has also waned. BJP insiders believe its campaign will peter out if the Congress does not get provoked. “We need a villain for our attack to succeed,” remarked a BJP minister.