At its two-day national executive meet that concluded on Sunday, the Bharatiya Janata Party backed Assam’s National Register of Citizens in unequivocal terms and accused its detractors of “standing with illegal infiltrators”. News reports quoted party president Amit Shah saying, “We firmly denounce the criticism of NRC.”

Leaders of the BJP’s Assam unit, however, seem to be treading more cautiously. At a press conference on Monday, a day after Shah’s remarks, BJP state president Ranjeet Dass said it was a “matter of great concern” that “lakhs of Indian citizen names particularly Indian Gorkha, Indian Hindi and Bengali speaking, and specially indigenous people’s names have been left out”.

The National Register of Citizens, being updated for the first time since 1951, is meant to be a list of bona fide Indian citizens in Assam, separating them from those the state defines as “illegal immigrants”. More than 40 lakh people of the 3.29 crore applicants were excluded from the final draft released on July 30. While the social and religious profiles of those rejected have not been made public, ground reports suggest a significant number of Bengali Hindus may have been left out. Assam’s Bengali Hindu community is considered to be one of the BJP’s most reliable voter bases in the state.

At Monday’s press conference, Dass also attacked National Register of Citizens state coordinator Prateek Hajela’s “strange” and “suspicious” affidavit to the Supreme Court in which the official proposed that only 10 of the 15 documents originally allowed to prove citizenship be permitted in the subsequent process. Hajela suggested that the 1951 National Register of Citizens, pre-March 24, 1971, voter lists, citizenship certificates, refugee registration certificates and ration cards issued prior to March 24, 1971, not be admitted as proof of citizenship. March 24, 1971, is the cut-off date for inclusion in the citizenship registry.

The National Register of Citizens is now in its final phase where the 40 lakh rejected applicants can make fresh claims to citizenship and inclusion in the final list.

This is not the first time BJP politicians in Assam have expressed reservations about the National Register of Citizens even as central leaders consistently project it a product of the party’s strong-willed governance. Earlier this month, three senior office-bearers of the state unit told journalists in Guwahati that “lakhs of Indian-origin people have been left out of the draft NRC”.

Political analysts say the state unit’s trepidation – which has become increasingly visible – may be the result of an internal assessment that the exercise, as it has panned out, may do the party in Assam more harm than good electorally.

Breaking the vote bank?

“Things have not quite worked out according to plan for the BJP,” said Udayon Misra, former professor at Dibrugarh University and author of The Burden of History: Assam and the Partition. “A lot of Biharis, Marwaris and Nepalis appear to have been left out of the NRC in addition to Hindu Bengalis – the BJP stands to lose from that for they are their traditional voters.”

Arupjyoti Saikia, a Guwahati-based historian and political commentator, said, “Time is running out for the BJP. If no miracle happens, NRC has almost alienated the Hindu Bengali electorate from the BJP.”

Saikia contended that the BJP’s failure to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, had amplified its anxieties. The bill – which seeks to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan – was put in cold storage by the BJP following large-scale protests by Assamese groups in the Brahmaputra Valley. Among the Bengali Hindus of the Barak Valley, however, the bill has received widespread support.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah agreed. “For the ruling party, having the NRC without the Citizenship Amendment Bill has been a huge disappointment,” he said. “They were not expecting this and seem unprepared for it especially with the elections that are coming up.”

‘NRC not on expected lines’

Rajdeep Roy, a spokesperson of the BJP unit in Assam, conceded that the results of the National Register of Citizens were “not on expected lines”. Training his guns on Hajela, Roy said, “It is not the NRC itself, but the way things are going now with the state coordinator retracting his stand.” He added, “If the five documents are not allowed as proposed by the state coordinator, it will hurt the BJP’s core constituencies who have been voting for us since the 1980s.”

Dass was more guarded. While he insisted the BJP did not do “vote-bank politics”, he claimed door-to-door visits by the party’s ground-level workers had revealed that many “ethnic Assamese people, Nepalis, Bengalis from India” were missing from the draft. “It will be great injustice even if one of those people is left out of the final NRC,” he said. “If the BJP doesn’t stand up for them, who will?”

The BJP state president said Hajela’s proposal to disallow five documents in the final phase would affect lakhs of Indian citizens. “What is his [Hajela’s] intention?” asked Dass. “How can he suddenly decide [to] withdraw five documents when they have been allowed for so long?”

Analysts, however, said the BJP’s attack on Hajela was only cover for its disappointment with the results of the National Register of Citizens. “From various quarters, it [BJP] has now begun to throw a volley of words so that the Hindu Bengali voters could be won back,” said Saikia. “They want to put the blame not on the idea of the NRC per se but on the bureaucratic structure and the mechanism of proof.”

Baruah seemed to echo his view. “The NRC appears to have entered a political phase,” he said. “Politicians seem to be sharpening their rhetorical weapons against the NRC process itself. Hajela is an easier target at least at the moment.”