The twin issues of the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Bill took a huge toll on an organisationally weak BJP, which lost all the seats it contested. Ironically, the saffron party's archrival TMC took all the three constituencies in Kharagpur Sadar, Kaliaganj and Karimpur.
While the BJP leadership in the state has been accusing TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee of misguiding the people on NRC and spreading lies about the saffron party, some of its key members admit that the NRC issue, together with factionalism, dampened the party’s prospects in this state.
Just six months back, BJP’s spirit was high in the state as it rode on its success in the Lok Sabha polls this year.
“NRC is a non-issue in Bengal, but the TMC used it to their advantage and misguide the people. First, the Citizenship Amendment Bill will be passed and then only NRC will be taken up. It is not that NRC is happening tomorrow in Bengal,” Chandra Kumar Bose, vice president of the party in the state said.
BJP leaders are secretly worried about NRC. They are of the view that the party cannot win the votes of the very people it is trying to de-list from citizenship or put them under review to prove their Indian origins.
In fact, political commentator Biswanath Chakraborty feels that the fear of NRC not only helped the TMC to polarise the Muslim and other minority voters in its favour, but those Hindus who feared NRC implementation also voted for the TMC.
“Hindus in West Bengal felt worried after the NRC targetted 1.2 million members of their community in Assam and opted to vote for the TMC, which is opposing it tooth and nail. Now even if the BJP backtracks from its NRC agenda, people will not trust the party for another decade or so,” Chakraborty said.
While NRC has been an election issue for the BJP at the national level, the TMC also capitalised on it by coming opposing it.
West Bengal’s chief minister, Banerjee, had maintained that she will not allow NRC’s implementation in Bengal, regardless of the consequences. While the BJP had gained in some pockets with NRC, particularly in areas that have an indigenous West Bengali population and in border areas, the TMC gained in the Muslim belts.
The identity of legal and illegal migrants has been a key societal issue in this state. According to the 2001 census data, about 55,82,325 people, accounting for a sizeable seven per cent of the state’s population, are classified as migrants from other Indian states and from abroad.
“The idea of NRC is not to declassify any Indian citizen but to identify illegal migrants and throw out them only,” Bose said.
Chakraborty said the TMC, with the advice of political consultant Prashant Kishore, was able to allay this fear to its advantage. Backed by its organisational capability, which Banerjee stressed upon after the Lok Sabha polls, yielded the desired results.
Not only was the TMC able to command a 47.5 per cent vote share against BJP’s 39.3 per cent, it also exploited factionalism within the BJP to the fullest to prove itself as the best alternative.
In fact, the TMC not only took the Kharagpur Sadar and Kaliaganj Assembly seats for the first time since its formation 22 years ago, it also beat the BJP in its stronghold in Kharagpur Sadar by a margin of 20,853 votes.
“Of late, factionalism has risen in the BJP and when we needed to project a unified image, people saw us divided, especially in Kharagpur Sadar, where there were some issues with candidature. It hasn’t gone well with the people,” a BJP leader said on condition of anonymity.
While the BJP has been focussing on increasing its membership in the state, which has now crossed 4 million, party leaders are wary of “unwanted elements” that are haemorrhaging the outfit with their entry into its fold.
“We need both good party men as well as leaders. If leaders are not qualified, there will be mistakes like this,” the BJP leader said.
On the other hand, TMC’s outreach programme to connect with the masses and rebuild support for the party has benefitted it. Even BJP leaders admit in private that having such an outreach programme will enable the party to connect to the masses, solve issues and build goodwill for it and its local leaders.
After her victory in the by-polls, which a section of political observers term as the “curtain-raiser for 2021 Assembly elections”, a very humble Banerjee said, “People of all castes, creeds, communities and background have voted for us. We dedicate this victory to the people of Bengal. The BJP is getting paid back for its arrogance of power and for insulting the people of Bengal”.
As the issue of NRC has started to show its ramifications in West Bengal, the BJP has decided to strengthen its organisational capability and address factionalism first before taking up any agenda while the TMC has been stressing on redeveloping its connect with the grassroots.