The 2019 Lok Sabha election was an inflection point for the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal. After decades of being a minor party in the state, the BJP managed an impressive performance: it won 18 MP seats and got 41% of the vote. This made it clear that the BJP was now the principal opposition party in Bengal.
The BJP achieved this using a high-voltage campaign centered on communal identity – specifically the idea of religion-based idea of Indians citizenship using the tools of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act. These initiatives were designed to make Muslims feel vulnerable, even as they held out the promise that undocumented Hindu migrants from Bangladesh would soon have their status legalised.
Fast forward nearly two years. As the BJP now makes a concerted effort to win the state elections and dislodge the Trinamool from power, it has – till now – not repeated its 2019 playbook. Rather than bring up highly contentious issues such as the CAA, which was greeted by enormous protests across India last winter, the BJP has started its campaign with a straight bat. It has concentrated on using standard political tools like engineering defections from rival parties and alleging instances of corruption and nepotism by the ruling Trinamool Congress Party.
Amit Shah’s just-concluded high-voltage trip to West Bengal sums up how the BJP is approaching West Bengal as campaigning kicks off for the Assembly elections to be conducted in the first half of 2021.
The high point of Shah’s trip was the public induction of scores of defectors from the Trinamool, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress during a rally on Saturday. In total, 18 major leaders changed sides, including five Trinamool Congress Party MLAs, one MLA each from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and Congress as well as one Trinamool MP.
The BJP’s biggest catch was Trinamool’s Suvendu Adhikari, once one of Mamata Banerjee’s main lieutenants.
Adhikari had led the agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram against the Left Front government in 2007. The movement – which often saw violent clashes between protestors and CPI(M) cadre – catapulted the Trinamool to prominence.
The BJP’s focus on defectors is not new. In 2017, it inducted Mukul Roy, who had once been Banerjee’s right hand man. In October, Roy was made vice president of the BJP, indicating clearly that the Modi-Shah high command were comfortable promoting defectors over the party’s homegrown state unit.
Apart from defectors, during his two-day trip, Shah concentrated on the Trinamool’s alleged corruption, lack of development and also nepotism in the form of Banerjee favouring her nephew Abhishek as the de facto #2 in the party.
Much of this was standard Indian political strategy, amped up by the BJP’s muscle. However by barely mentioning the CAA, Shah was making a major change in how he had campaigned for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Although the CAA was passed more than a year back amidst much furore, the Modi government has chosen to not implement it as of yet. The rules for the act – guidelines on how a legislation will be implemented – are yet to be published by New Delhi.
This long delay after the BJP played up the legislation as a paneca for Bangladesh-origin Hindus has set off consternation in the party’s own ranks within Bengal. Shantanu Thakur, a BJP MP and a member of the Matua sect, a religious order followed principally by Bangladeshi-origin Dalits, has already made public his displeasure at this delay.
Rather than make amends, Shah decided to sidestep the CAA issue. Shah’s visit to the Matua stronghold of Thakurnagar was cancelled and the the home minister did not mention the legislation as part of his speeches.
However, when asked about it in his press conference on Sunday, Shah seemed to indicate that the rules were still some time away. “When the vaccinations start and we manage to break the cycle of Corona then we will think about it [CAA rules],” Shah said.
When pressed on when the NRC – another frequent topic brought up by Shah while campaigning in Bengal in 2019 – will be implemented, Shah refused to answer.
Ironically, even as the BJP has avoided the CAA-NRC as a campaign issue, it is the Trinamool that has shown eagerness to make it one. Banerjee has bought up the issue at several political rallies, mostly denying the very need for a CAA itself. The Bengal chief minister has claimed that even though most Hindus of Bangladeshi-origin already have Indian citizenship, they would need to apply for it anew. The BJP’s vacillation has given the Trinamool another chance at winning back the Matua vote – much of which had drifted over to the BJP because of its strong Hindu identity pitch.
This isn’t the first time the BJP’s plans to introduce the CAA have run into trouble. For a few years now, observers have been pointing to the numerous problems in case a law is put in place to grant citizenship to undocumented migrants. At the same time, groups of Hindus of Bangladeshi-origin such as the Matuas have been demanding a citizenship process that functions without any conditions (such as providing proof of religion or country of origin).
A last-minute publication of rules before the Assembly elections could potentially salvage the situation and allow the BJP to claim that it did eventually live up to its promise to implemented the CAA. However, in case Amit Shah’s December trip remains the Bengal BJP’s template, this extremely turbulent CAA strategy would give the Trinamool a good chance to woo back some groups who had gone over to the Hindutva party.