BJP sees different shades of saffron in Assam and Bengal

The party’s approach to its core agenda of Hindutva will be contradictory in the ensuing assembly elections to the two states

In Assam, the party will contest to retain power that it had acquired in the north-eastern state for the first time in 2016. In Bengal, the BJP is hoping to repeat in 2021 what it had done in Assam in 2016: a meteoric rise to power from nowhere.

The BJP is adopting a differing approach to its core Hindutva stand in Assam and West Bengal that will go to polls at the same time early next year.

The BJP has high-stakes in both the neighbouring states.

In Assam, it will contest to retain power that it had acquired in the north-eastern state for the first time in 2016, winning 60 seats. Until then, it was a fringe player with just five seats in the 126-member assembly.

In Bengal, the BJP is hoping to repeat in 2021 what it had done in Assam in 2016: a meteoric rise to power from nowhere.

In the last West Bengal assembly elections, the BJP had got only three seats out of 294. The electoral fortune of the saffron party witnessed an upswing in the state in 2029 Lok Sabha elections when it emerged as a principal challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), winning 18 of the state’s 42 parliamentary seats with a vote share of 40.64 percent, a whooping jump of over 22 percent from what it had got in the previous parliamentary elections.

The BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha performance in West Bengal is akin to its trajectory in Assam. In the north-eastern state, the 2014 parliamentary elections had given the BJP the much-needed tailwind to depose the Congress two years later. The party had then won seven out of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats.

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In both the states, the BJP’s sudden storm surge was largely pushed by the turncoats from the ruling parties. Congress deserter Himanta Biswa Sarma is leading the charge of the saffron brigade in Assam just as Mukul Roy, a former second-in-command of the TMC, is now in the forefront of the BJP’s poll preparedness in Bengal.

Incidentally, names of both Sarma and Roy figured prominently in the multi-crore Saradha chit fund case, prompting their detractors to allege they switched over to the BJP to save themselves from the case.

Just as Sarma had managed to engineer a major split in the Congress in the run up to the 2016 assembly elections in Assam, the BJP in Bengal is pinning hope on Roy to do the same ahead of next year’s elections.

Roy was made the BJP national vice-president last month to placate him ahead of the assembly elections. He was earlier miffed for not getting enough responsibilities and respect in the party. Roy is now reportedly in touch with some TMC legislators to make them jump the TMC ship just before elections.

Notwithstanding such contextual similarities, the BJP’s approach to its core agenda of Hindutva in the ensuing assembly elections in the two states will be contradictory, if the current public rhetorics of the BJP leaders are any indication.

In Bengal, the BJP will harp on ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas,’ as has been reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to people of West Bengal on the occasion of commencement of Durga Puja on Thursday (October 22).

The party has also set a target to enrol 20 lakh minorities in the state by December this year in a major outreach drive.

The BJP leaders in Bengal of late have also toned down their diatribes against the minority community that accounts for 27.01 percent of the state’s population.

The party’s state president Dilip Ghosh a week ago said attempts to use religion to get votes should be avoided. He was taking a dig at the West Bengal government’s decision to grant Rs 50,000 to community Durga Puja organisers, ostensibly to woo Hindu voters.

The approach is in contrast to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s claim of continuous “Mughal-aggression” in the state.

Sarma at a public rally earlier this month stated that the BJP needed to be voted to power to prevent the aggression of “Aurangzebs and Babars”, while Sonowal in another rally called upon all indigenous communities and genuine Indian citizens to unite to thwart the Mughal invasion.

“Even for the uninitiated it will not be difficult to gauge whom the two BJP leaders were referring to with their Mughal analogy,” said Assam Congress spokesperson Apurba Kumar Bhattacharjee.

The BJP came to power in Assam cashing in on the fear of alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh would take over the land and its resources, undermining the Assamese identity. It had dubbed the last assembly elections as the now-or-never battle to safeguard the Assamese identity and vowed to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 to detect and deport so-called illegal migrants.

In the updated NRC list published last year, names of 19.07 lakh people were excluded, many of whom are Hindus. This had prompted the BJP to plunge into a damage control exercise enacting the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to provide citizenship to the non-Muslim persecuted migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Assam government has also not notified the NRC till date, claiming major anomalies in the final list.

The enactment of the CAA led to a huge protest in Assam. Unlike in the rest of the country where the protests were against the exclusion of Muslims, in Assam the CAA protestors were against granting Indian citizenship to any refugee or immigrant, regardless of their religion.

Many powerful civil-society organisations of the state, including the All Assam Students Union (AASU), have turned against the BJP after the CAA was enacted, demanding expulsion of all illegal-migrants irrespective of their religion.

On October 13, the state government once again revived the NRC from the cold storage directing the district authorities to re-scrutinize the list to delete the names of the “ineligible” persons, indicating that the NRC would dominate even the 2021 assembly elections.

The ineligible persons referred to those already declared foreigners by a foreigners tribunal, those declared doubtful voters (An Assam specific term. ‘D’ voters are included in electoral rolls but not allowed to vote during pendency of their cases before foreigners tribunals) and the persons whose cases are pending before foreigners tribunals.

The BJP is calling for re-verification of 20 per cent names included in the updated NRC from districts bordering Bangladesh and 10 per cent from the remaining districts.

Unlike in Assam, the NRC is not a vote catcher in Bengal. The BJP leaders in Bengal have said that the NRC is not on their agenda.

However, eying on votes of the Matuas– a community of Dalit Hindus who have migrated from Bangladesh in the recent past—the BJP has revived the issue of the CAA in West Bengal.

BJP national president J P Nadda addressing the party workers in Siliguri in North Bengal said the implementation of the CAA was delayed due to the pandemic and the law would be implemented soon, an announcement which has triggered fresh protests in Assam much to the BJP’s discomfort.

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