West Bengal

CAA protests: Political see-saw in West Bengal

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee leading a rally to protest against the new citizenship law, in Siliguri on January 3. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

An unusually quiet day at Burra Bazar in central Kolkata, normally an extremely busy and congested business district, during the nationwide general strike called by trade unions on January 8. Most shops had their shutters down. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Kolkata on January 3. Photo: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS

Dilip Ghosh, BJP State president. He has been forced to tone down his hawkish stance. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

With civic elections round the corner, the ruling Trinamool Congress appears to have gained an edge over the BJP in West Bengal.

Barely seven months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal seemed poised to assume a position to overthrow the ruling Trinamool Congress in the 2021 Assembly election. However, there has been a perceptible change in the State’s political scenario following the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which brought along with it the fear of an impending National Register of Citizens (NRC). The BJP now appears to be on the back foot while the Trinamool, riding on anti-CAA and anti-NRC protest waves, gains momentum.

The CAA, in fact, has created a see-saw situation in Bengal politics: one party seems to be getting an edge over the other, only to lose it and then regain it. With the municipal elections around the corner and the Assembly election scheduled for next year, it is difficult to predict who will finally emerge with an advantage. The BJP’s performance in the Lok Sabha election was extraordinary. It won 18 of the State’s 42 parliamentary seats, wresting 14 from the ruling party and increasing its vote share to a whopping 40.25 per cent. The saffron party, it appeared, was well on its way to dethrone the Trinamool in the next Assembly election. A strong anti-incumbency sentiment, rather than a pro-Narendra Modi wave, was working in the BJP’s favour, making the situation all the more precarious for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Large-scale defections from the Trinamool camp to the BJP had resulted in the ruling party losing control of more than half a dozen municipal bodies and a number of gram panchayats. By December 2019, however, the Trinamool had not only won back all the civic and village bodies it had lost but also inflicted crushing defeats on the BJP in byelections, held in November, to three Assembly seats. The BJP lost the Kharagpur Sadar seat, which it had won in the earlier election, and also the Kaliaganj seat in Uttar Dinajpur, where it had a lead of around 56,000 in the Lok Sabha election. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill had not been introduced yet, and the NRC was already a burning topic spreading panic among Muslims and Hindus alike.

The Trinamool used fears generated by the NRC exercise in Assam, in which 12 lakh Hindus were left out, to pull back voters on its side again. After the byelection results were declared on November 28, Mamata Banerjee said: “The people have said ‘no NRC in West Bengal’.” Many BJP leaders acknowledged that they could not counter her campaign against the NRC and that this cost them a sizeable section of the Hindu votes that they had earlier weaned away from the Trinamool. The momentum the BJP had picked up after the Lok Sabha election slackened and the spirits of the party’s rank and file plummeted.

According to senior Trinamool leader Om Prakash Mishra, the BJP’s growth in the State following the Lok Sabha election was an “artificial” one fuelled by the transfer of Left votes to the party. “The BJP has failed to sustain this growth, because with its divisive agenda it has not been able to make much progress against the secular ethos of West Bengal.... Mamata Banerjee’s leadership against the CAA and the NRC has galvanised the people into an anti-BJP mood and at the same time has brought the Trinamool to the centre stage of national politics,” he told Frontline. He also pointed out that the measures taken by Mamata Banerjee to “reform government functioning, accelerate development and bring in discipline and order in the rank and file of the party” have been effective in checking the downward political slide the party faced soon after the general election. He claimed that the BJP’s downward spiral was “irreversible”.

According to sources in the BJP, however, the party’s situation in the State has somewhat stabilised after the passing of the CAA. “The CAA has reassured Hindus that the BJP has no intention of driving them out. Those Hindus who succumbed to the fears spread by the Trinamool and the local administration and left us to support Mamata Banerjee have now returned to our fold,” said Biswajit Lahiri, BJP district president, Uttar Dinajpur. The well-known political analyst and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty also felt that the BJP’s position prior to the CAA was more vulnerable. “They were not able to get their point across to either the Hindus or the Muslims, and that was reflected in the byelection results. But after the CAA, they are at least able to reach out to Hindus. However, it has brought about a sharper political polarisation. There are, on the one hand, the Muslims, the Left liberals and other non-right-wing citizens who will now be looking to the Trinamool to take on the BJP. On the other hand, there is the Hindu vote bank, including Hindu refugees, who may consolidate more towards the BJP. We are yet to see where this polarisation finally leads to,” said Chakraborty.

There also seems to be some confusion on the NRC issue, as far as the State BJP is concerned. Prime Minister Modi said on December 22 that there had been no discussion on the NRC being implemented, contrary to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s repeated insistence that there would be a nationwide NRC. Since then, the State BJP has been wary of broaching the subject. West Bengal BJP president and Lok Sabha member Dilip Ghosh, who had earlier been unequivocally hawkish on the NRC, has toned down his stand. He still maintains that the NRC is required but says that it is not a priority for the party right now.

He told Frontline that Mamata Banerjee was polarising the State’s population with her rigid stand against the CAA. “The way a particular community went on the rampage, destroying public and private property, has frightened the people. The BJP has already launched a door-to-door campaign assuring people that the CAA is not about denying citizenship but granting it,” he said. Asked whether the campaign would also talk about the NRC, he said: “The main task is now to allay the people’s fears about the CAA and it is only that subject that we shall focus on.”

In the battle over the CAA, the BJP is certainly nowhere close to the Trinamool’s visibility at the moment, and nor is it as vocal as the Trinamool. Though the BJP has chalked out a counter-attack strategy, it is yet to take off. The Trinamool, buoyed by the impact it has made with its anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, has made the issue its political plank for the upcoming civic elections. “There are many issues, but the primary issue will be the CAA and the NRC,” said the party’s national president, Subrata Bakshi, on January 1. Interestingly, the Trinamool celebrated its foundation day on January 1 this year as “Citizen’s Day”.

The State BJP is still waiting for guidance from its central leadership before it embarks on its next phase of action. The party is expected to kick-start its pro-CAA campaign, particularly among Hindu refugees, on January 15, after Narendra Modi’s Kolkata visit scheduled for January 10 and 11. A BJP source said: “The visit will give us a much-needed boost at a time when the morale of our party workers is a little low.”

So the Trinamool seems to hold the momentum against the BJP right now. Yet, many within the party are not very sure of the ultimate outcome of the anti-CAA protest. “The situation is still in a flux even though we have the upper hand now. More developments will have to take place before we can get a clear picture. But clearly the advantage will lie with whoever manages to convince the people better,” said a senior Trinamool source.