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West Bengal: Will CAA tip the scales?

The Trinamool Congress was on the ropes after Sandeshkhali, but the CAA Rules announcement has given the party a burst of new energy.

Published : Mar 18, 2024 16:46 IST - 8 MINS READ

Posters, including one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are seen along a main street during a protest against the implementation of the CAA, in Kolkata on March 12.

Posters, including one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are seen along a main street during a protest against the implementation of the CAA, in Kolkata on March 12. | Photo Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Before the Centre’s implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on March 11, the electoral dynamics in West Bengal were poised at a unique tilt. On one side was the ruling Trinamool Congress—reeling on the ropes from scams, arrests of top leaders, allegations of misrule, electoral violence, and discord within the party—and on the other was the BJP, the main opposition party, seeking to push its brand of Hindutva politics into the distinct political culture of Bengal. In the midst of this, the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress, the two erstwhile ruling parties, are looking to once again become relevant in the State. The implementation of the CAA has thrown a new ingredient into this cauldron, turning all previous political equations and calculations topsy-turvy.

The Lok Sabha election is for all practical purposes yet again a battle between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP may be the main opposition party, but it is still not strong enough organisationally to take on the Trinamool at the grassroots level and still needs the star power of national-level leaders to lead the campaigns. This perhaps explains why Modi himself kick-started the campaign in Bengal, and addressed four meetings in nine days even before the election dates were announced.

Also Read | Daring dozen: 12 crucial States where BJP is likely to face a stiff challenge

Mamata’s mass appeal has remained undiminished even after 13 years at the helm, but never since assuming power in 2011 has her party appeared more beleaguered and vulnerable than at present. With two heavyweight Ministers and several MLAs and influential leaders behind bars in connection with various scams, and with central investigating teams hot on the money trail, the ruling party was struggling to gain control of the situation when its image suffered a severe beating in February with the women’s uprising in Sandeshkhali village in North 24 Parganas district.

A first for Mamata

For the first time, Mamata faced a protest led by rural women who alleged that local Trinamool leaders had established a reign of terror in the region. Their allegations, which ranged from sexual harassment to land grabbing, became a national issue that was fully exploited, not just by the BJP but also by other opposition parties, including the CPI(M), the Congress, and the Indian Secular Front (ISF). The BJP, especially, has put Sandeshkhali at the forefront of its attacks on the Trinamool, as was evident in Modi’s speeches.

Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation leaders protest after the Central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Kolkata, on March 12.

Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation leaders protest after the Central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Kolkata, on March 12. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The Trinamool campaign may have received a further setback when Mamata suffered a major head injury on the evening of March 14, after falling down at her residence. She was admitted to SSKM hospital in Kolkata where she received three stitches on her head and one on her nose. Addressing the media, Manimoy Bandopadhyay, SSKM director, said that the Chief Minister had a cerebral concussion and a sharp cut over her forehead and nose, which was bleeding profusely.” There was some confusion initially about whether she was “pushed”, which was later denied by her party members.

Also Read | BJP’s strategic relaunch of CAA unveils a relentless pursuit of majoritarian agenda  

While the Trinamool’s main attack points against the BJP were the same old ones, of the Centre’s antipathy towards Bengal, seen in the withholding of funds to the State, as well as the issue of “bahiragata” (outsiders) controlling the saffron party, they seemed tepid in comparison to the burning new issue of Sandeshkhali and the various scams. However, the implementation of the CAA rules seemed to deliver a fresh boost of energy to the Trinamool, giving its election campaign strength and purpose once again. Mamata has strongly opposed the CAA move. The Trinamool’s inclusion of 26 new faces in its list of 42 candidates is also being seen as an attempt to make over its image.

  • The implementation of the CAA has introduced a new element into Bengal’s electoral dynamics, completely upending previous political calculations.
  • Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, in power since 2011, appears more beleaguered and vulnerable than ever before. The notification of the CAA’s implementation came at a fortuitous moment for Mamata.
  • Political observers say it coincides with signs of disillusionment among her two main support bases—women and Muslim voters—potentially shifting Hindu votes towards the BJP.

Does BJP have a future in Bengal?

The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty observed that this particular election would be crucial for the BJP to find out whether it has a future in Bengal. “Trinamool has been on the defensive on practically all fronts, from governance to the party organisation,” said Chakraborty. “If the BJP fails to exploit the situation now, it will reflect on its very acceptability in the State. However, the implementation of the CAA may neutralise the advantage the BJP seems to be having.”

On the very day the CAA was implemented in the country, Mamata announced that it would not be implemented in Bengal. From the next day, her opposition to the implementation became more strident, and it was clear that the CAA would again be among the main election issues for the Trinamool. “In spite of being citizens, you will all become illegal immigrants,” Mamata said at a rally on March 12. “What will happen to your property, your jobs, and the education of your children? You will have no rights… remember, this is linked to the National Register of Citizens [NRC}, and you will be taken to detention camps.... I am prepared to lose my life, but I will never allow anyone to snatch away the rights of the people of Bengal.”

The notification for the implementation of the CAA was also fortuitous for Mamata at a time when her two most dependable support bases—women and Muslim voters—were showing signs of disillusionment, particularly after the Sandeshkhali protest. The Muslim population in the State, which stood at 27 per cent in the 2011 Census, has for long been firmly behind the Trinamool. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the BJP won 18 of the 42 seats, wresting 14 away from the ruling party, the Trinamool had a lead in 98 of the 130 Assembly segments in which the Muslim population was over 27 per cent, including 60 of the 74 segments where the Muslim population was between 40 and 90 per cent.

However, of late, a section of Muslim voters was seen as moving away from the Trinamool, as was evident in the 2023 panchayat elections and in the Sagardighi byelection last March, in which the Congress, supported by the Left and the ISF, wrested away a constituency with a Muslim population of over 68 per cent. With the chance of a large section of Hindu votes being polarised in favour of the BJP, even a small split in Muslim votes can prove costly for the Trinamool.

Playing the religion card again

With the CAA implementation, Mamata has also gone back to playing the religion card, a tactic that has allowed her to successfully counter the BJP’s own Hindutva politics. Addressing a public meeting the day after the CAA implementation notice was issued, Mamata said: “They intentionally chose yesterday because the Ramzan month started yesterday. The BJP’s game is to create division within Hindus and also within Muslims.” She alleged that Hindus would also be hit badly by the CAA. “Out of the 19 lakh whose names were cancelled in the NRC exercise in Assam, 13 lakh were Bengali Hindus. Many committed suicide,” she said. She warned people not to apply under the CAA as it would take away their citizenship.

People from the Matua community celebrate after the Central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Ranaghat in West Bengal’s Nadia district.

People from the Matua community celebrate after the Central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Ranaghat in West Bengal’s Nadia district. | Photo Credit: PTI

Mamata’s move is seen as a shrewd gambit to blunt the BJP’s attacks and put it on the back foot. With the BJP now having to refute the Trinamool’s anti-CAA campaign, its other points of attack are being diluted. Earlier, its inability to counter the Trinamool’s anti-CAA movement spread confusion and apprehension among Hindus as well, which cost the BJP dearly in the 2021 Assembly election. The saffron party can ill afford to ignore its opponent’s campaign this time. Although the Trinamool is a part of the bigger INDIA bloc, its failure to reach an electoral understanding with the Congress and the CPI(M) sparked off speculation that the BJP may gain from the division of non-BJP votes. However, the CAA factor has put paid to all such speculation. Although it is still too early to predict, political analysts said that the CAA might turn out to be a double-edged sword. Just as the Trinamool may hope to gain from it, a polarisation on religious lines may hit the Congress, the Left, and the ISF hard, while at the same time benefitting the BJP.

Also Read | Centre versus West Bengal: Can Mamata Banerjee stay defiant?

According to the veteran political observer Biswajit Bhattacharya, the BJP has timed its implementation of the CAA in order could garner the maximum Hindu votes. “Several seats now have become a certainty for the BJP in south Bengal, and they have a fighting chance in quite a few others in other parts of the State as well,” he said. “The BJP could not consolidate Hindu votes with its aggressive Hindutva, but it may get luckier with the gesture of providing refuge to Hindus through CAA.”

Since the 2019 general election, Mamata’s sustained anti-CAA protest has not only stemmed the party’s seemingly inexorable decline but also played a key role in her returning to power in 2021. It now remains to be seen whether the CAA issue will again prove fruitful for her or whether the saffron party will reap the benefits this time. 

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