The BJP’s main campaign plank in the West Bengal by-elections was that it was bringing the NRC to the whole of India. It also promised to get through Parliament the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This strategy boomeranged.
Neither the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expected that the former would make a clean sweep of all the three West Bengal assembly by-elections held on November 25. It is therefore important to figure out the issues and reasons behind such a dramatic outcome.
There are two particular overriding reasons why the results need to be analysed with additional rigour. One, these by-election results were seen as likely to throw up pointers to the way the wind would be blowing when the state would go to the polls in 2021 and provide a signal to the answer to the paramount issue: Will the BJP dislodge the TMC lion in its den?
The second issue is the future of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which the BJP wishes to turn into national electoral issues. What the rest of India may not be so keenly aware of is that Assam and West Bengal offered experimental pilots of sorts on the issues and may tell the BJP something new about the wisdom of making these a part of its national poll campaign.
The BJP’s main campaign plank in the West Bengal by-elections was that it was bringing the NRC to the state as also the whole of India. This, it hoped, would divide the state’s electorate along religious lines, with Muslims being as opposed to it as Hindus being in favour of it. Considering the composition of the electorate, this issue should have allowed the BJP a walkover.
Additionally, it promised to get through Parliament the CAB, which again is opposed and supported along religious lines, thus giving the BJP a second religion-based issue to stage an electoral walkthrough.
As it turned out, this strategy boomeranged for the BJP. Both Hindu refugees and Muslim immigrants voted for the TMC. The TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who vowed never to allow the NRC to come to West Bengal and also vehemently opposed to the CAB, won the day decisively. How did this happen?
Every constituency has its own local issues but the overall reality that has emerged is this. The results of the parliamentary elections earlier in the year marked out a powerfully emerging BJP in the state and pointed to the communal polarisation of the electorate, but the assembly bypolls signalled an about turn by the same electorate.
It is to be expected that the significant Muslim population came out it total support of the TMC and Banerjee’s opposition to the NRC-CAB duo. However, unexpectedly, good numbers of Hindu voters, far more that in the parliamentary elections, went along with the rejection of the NRC.
The answer to the reason as to why this happened is there in the results for the Kaliaganj assembly seat which the TMC won for the first time. (It is part of the Raiganj Lok Sabha constituency, which the BJP won in May by over 60,000 votes.) Sixty-four per cent of the electorate in the constituency is made up of Rajbangshis, an ethnic Hindu community with a substantial presence in North Bengal and Lower Assam. Substantial numbers of Rajbangshis in Assam have been rendered non-citizens by the Assam NRC. So the Rajbangshis in West Bengal have no faith in the NRC and have solidly voted for the TMC.
The reality is that the NRC in Assam has pleased nobody. Large numbers of those who have been rendered stateless by it are non-Muslims. On the rebound, it is the TMC which has benefited, prompting Banerjee to say, “Everybody voted for us — minorities, adivasis and Rajbangshis.” The insight that has emerged out of the bypoll results is that the NRC is a flawed idea and does nobody any good and the BJP should perhaps reconsider making it a key cross-country electoral plank for the future.
The Kharagpur Sadar constituency tells a different but equally revealing story. Historically it was a railway township which had over time collected a clutch of ancillary industries. It has a multilingual population and was a traditional Congress stronghold, with the BJP snatching it away only in the last assembly elections.
The electorate in the constituency has been deeply disturbed by what it sees as the Centre’s plans to privatise the Indian railways. Any amount of ministerial denials that what is being undertaken is small bits of outsourcing of services has cut no ice. The seat going to the TMC for the first time is the result of the electorate voting against the perceived long-term government plan to privatise the railways.
What has also gone down poorly with a large section of the Kharagpur Sadar electorate is the choice of the BJP candidate. His inability to communicate in Bengali has put off the Bengali-speaking part of the electorate. In fact, this ties up with a comment made by even state BJP sources that the party’s choice of candidates has been poor. Banerjee put her finger on it by stating after the results were out that the BJP was paying for its “arrogance”. This led to both the wrong choice of candidates and lackadaisical campaigning. The party sort of took the electorate for granted.
The TMC, on the other hand took nothing for granted. Under the guidance of Prashant Kishore, the consultant who began by assisting Narendra Modi for the 2014 parliamentary elections, the party went in for booth level planning. Overall, in the bypolls, almost everything went right for the TMC and virtually nothing for the BJP.Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.LIVE NOW... Video series on How to Double Your Monthly Income... where Rahul Shah, Ex-Swiss Investment Banker and one of India's leading experts on wealth building, reveals his secret strategies for the first time ever. Register here to watch it for FREE.