Mamata Banerjee-led ruling Trinamool Congress and its principal challenger Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be sworn political rivals in West Bengal but both parties know that the fear about the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) among Hindus and Muslims alike was the most important determinant of the outcome of the bypoll held in three assembly constituencies on November 25.
The by-elections were considered a bellwether ahead of the fresh assembly elections in West Bengal in 2021, with the Trinamool Congress and the BJP locked in a fierce race for power and a chance to frame and revise their battle strategies.
Mamata, the chief minister of West Bengal, described her party’s clean sweep of the three constituencies—Kaliaganj, Karimpur and Kharagpur Sadar—as a “people’s mandate against the NRC” and stated that her government does not want NRC in Bengal.
What brought particularly good news for Trinamool Congress is that it won Kaliaganj and Kharagpur for the first time, wresting them from the BJP and the Congress respectively. Both Kaliaganj and Karimpur in Basirhat district border Bangladesh and the NRC factor played a key role in swaying the voters there.
It may be recalled that in the parliamentary polls held six months ago, the BJP had lost Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency. And now with the loss of Karimpur assembly seat, it is clear that the BJP failed to find any issue to trigger a counter-polarisation among Hindu voters.
On the contrary, the by-election results show that the anti-NRC perception caused a pro-Trinamool Congress consolidation among the electorate cutting religious lines. It is time the BJP introspected about the diminishing returns of a polarising issue and if it needs to be abandoned altogether or re-packaged.
The bypoll results show Mamata has so far successfully tapped into apprehensions among Hindus and Muslims in West Bengal about NRC and their future in the wake of the final NRC in Assam, where an estimated 12 million of the 19.3 million people excluded from the document are Hindus.
The exclusion of so many Hindus in Assam has spawned fears among Hindus and Muslims in West Bengal and put the BJP on the defensive. The BJP was aware of the problem created by the exclusion of so many Hindus from the NRC in Assam, and that is the reason the party repeatedly spoke about the need for giving citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mamata said the federal Indian government cannot bypass an elected state government and impose NRC in West Bengal. “For 72 years, people have reposed their faith in democratic institutions. There are individual rights like property rights, democratic rights and social and economic rights, but one fine morning they cannot be asked to leave because some people want it,” she said.
The BJP’s defeated candidate Kamal Chandra Sarkar in Kaliaganj, which is part of Uttar Dinajpur district, admitted that the NRC “landed a big blow to us. It was our weakness. The people were frightened by NRC and we failed to make them understand the issue properly.”
The Trinamool Congress nominee Tapan Deb Singha, who defeated Sarkar in Kaliaganj, too said the NRC was a big factor in the by-election in his constituency which the ruling party won for the first time since 1997.
The Uttar Dinajpur district bordering Bangladesh had been a Congress party bastion for long before the BJP won the Uttar Dinajpur parliamentary constituency in the national elections this year. The Kaliaganj assembly constituency has an estimated 70 percent Hindu population, almost all of them immigrants from across the border.
That the NRC issue got the same traction among Hindus and Muslims was reflected in the voting pattern in Karimpur constituency, with no significant change in that pattern in Karimpur block I, with a Hindu majority, and Karimpur block II, dominated by Muslims. The same phenomenon was witnessed in Kaliaganj.
The bypoll outcome also indicates that Trinamool Congress is slowly recovering the ground it lost in the Lok Sabha elections held in April-May this year when its tally of seats came down from 34 in 2014 to 22, while the BJP’s kitty went up from just two to 18 during the same period. And that should be good news for Mamata and a big worry for the BJP ahead of the next assembly elections.
What should concern the saffron party is that the bypoll results demonstrate that its big victory margins in parliamentary elections just six months ago have begun shrinking. The by-elections also provide a fresh proof—if any was required—that the political landscape in West Bengal has become a bipolar one between Trinamool Congress and the BJP, with further marginalisation of the Left front and the Congress.
It is estimated that Muslims constitute a sizable chunk of voters in around 90 assembly seats out of the total of 294 seats in West Bengal assembly. If BJP raises the pitch over NRC, it may trigger a consolidation of these votes in favour of Trinamool Congress by taking away whatever little portion of the votes that still go to the Left parties and the Congress. The assessment in the Trinamool Congress is that since the NRC is a livelihood issue, Muslims would not waste their votes for the Left-Congress, which in any case remains marginalised. On the other hand, Mamata, in a bid to bolster its anti-NRC campaign, recently announced giving land rights to refugees living on state government land.
In order to blunt the Trinamool Congress, the BJP is talking about the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) to give citizenship to non-Muslim refugees. In fact, the BJP general secretary in charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya was quoted as saying that the waiting period for non-Muslim immigrants to get Indian citizenship could be cut by six years from 12. As of now, the CAB is an unknown commodity and details are yet to hit the public domain. So, it remains to be seen how much the CAB can appeal to the immigrants and whether it can counter the NRC fear.
The Congress finished a distant third in Kaliaganj, Karimpur and Kharagpur. The Congress had never lost the Kharagpur assembly seat, which has a sizable non-Bangla-speaking population, till 2016 when the state BJP chief, Dilip Ghosh, was elected.
The combined vote share of the Left and the Congress in Kharagpur was just about ten percent and less than ten percent in Karimpur and Kaliaganj constituencies, reflecting the steep decline in the fortunes of once major political players in West Bengal.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for
The Daily Star.