Kolkata: The raging citizenship controversy in West Bengal, stemming from the fait accompli Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA), the about-to-be launched National Population Register (NPR) exercise and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) has created a piquant situation for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has stepped up its efforts for a stronger footprint in the state.
If it was the Narendra Modi factor that worked in favour of the BJP, enabling it to win 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in May 2019, and thereby dent chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee’s ego, the same Modi factor, with Amit Shah as an add-on, is now working against their own party, say political analysts.
High-decibel protests in West Bengal against CAA, NPR and NRC are being organised by political parties – TMC, the Left Front and the Congress – the last two either together or on their own. Of course, Mamata Banerjee is in the forefront, but she is sticking to her cultivated restraint of recent months and is taking care not to mention either Prime Minister Modi or the Union Home Minister Shah by name in any of her speeches or statements, say analysts.
Adding sentimental value to the ongoing protests was the incident at the Jadavpur University convocation on Tuesday, December 24, and strong condemnation the same day by the family and extended family members of renowned filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak of what they considered “serious wrong-doing” by BJP’s youth wing.
In the first incident in Jadavpur University, a student, Debasmita Chowdhury, after accepting her MA degree in international relations and the gold medal, sought a minute’s time from pro-vice-chancellor, Pradip Ghosh, took out a copy of a page of the CAA, tore it up and declared: “Hum kagaz nahi dikhayenge” (We will not show the papers).
The second incident that has harmed the BJP is a six-minute video clip being used by BJP’s youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, using scenes from Left leaning film director, late Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition trilogy –- Meghe Dhaka Tara, Subarnarekha and Komal Gandhar – to mobilise support for CAA.
In their statement, Ghatak’s family members condemned the misappropriation and misuse of Ghatak’s politics and cinema. The use of of parts of his filmography were divorced from context, they said, adding that those had been used “to justify laws that will make every citizen .... pass through an ordeal .......”
For Banerjee, the situation is helping her mobilise her party workers before the Kolkata Corporation elections, due in April, during which the citizenship controversy is sure to be an issue that all non-BJP opposition parties will try their best to cash in on.
An indication of the outcome of BJP’s efforts to blunt the edge of criticism on the Centre’s citizen-related moves may also be available during the corporation elections. The absence of a competent local leadership in West Bengal, however, remains a headache for BJP’s central leadership, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee, too, is facing flak for some of her past political decisions and glaring somersaults, that are being cited by TMC’s rivals – the Left Front, the Congress and BJP.
For instance, on August 4, 2005, Banerjee had moved a motion in the Lok Sabha to discuss infiltration into West Bengal and entry of Bangladeshi nationals in the state voter list. “Infiltration has become a disaster in Bengal now”, NDTV had quoted her as saying.
The motion had been turned down by then Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. The Left front was then power in West Bengal. She accused Chatterjee of bias and hurled a sheaf of papers at Deputy Speaker C S Atwal, who was then presiding. She later resigned but her resignation remained unaccepted as “it was not submitted in the proper form”.
In a Facebook post on August 1, 2018, senior BJP leader and minister, late Arun Jaitley, wrote a blog, attacking the Congress and Mamata Banerjee for criticising the NRC move. Jaitley stressed on the change in the stance of political parties and asked: Can India’s sovereignty be decided by such fickle minds and fragile hands? He also accused Banerjee of going back on the stance she had taken on Bangladeshi immigrants “when her party was an ally of BJP in 2005”.
Criticising the TMC supremo for her political flip-flop, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former Lok Sabha member, Mohammed Salim, recently told NewsClick: “Mamata Banerjee has no ideology, so doing a volte face is so easy for her.” It may be mentioned here that in 2005, the CPI (M) was still a dominant political force in West Bengal and went on to retain power in the 2006 Assembly elections as well.
However, after BJP’s gains in this year’s Lok Sabha elections, Banerjee’s seems to have softened her attacks on the Left parties and Congress, say analysts. TMC activists, allegedly on her instructions, are now neither forcibly occupying offices of CPI(M) and other Left Front constituents in districts, nor engineering defections from Congress.
As a result, the Left Front and Congress are now able to pursue their political programmes without many hurdles. Participation in rallies organised by the Left Front has also picked up noticeably. Congress participation in joint rallies is also visible.
The CAA-NPR-NRC Factor
In the given political situation in West Bengal, there is unanimity within the Opposition space that Home Minister’s Amit Shah’s NRC overdrive in Parliament and outside, is largely responsible for the widespread concern, fear and unrest across the state.
The first NPR in 2010 was a peaceful exercise and so was the Census that followed. Also, in the normal course, there was some recognition, though to a limited extent, that the collected data could be used as a welfare facilitator.
In fact, Union government officials have often claimed that five states – West Bengal, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Manipur -- had used NPR data collected by the Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner (RGI & CC) for devising beneficiary schemes. According to them, NPR data has also been used for better targeting of Central schemes, such as Ayushman Bharat, Ujjwala, Jan Dhan Yojana, Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana etc.
As of now, West Bengal and Kerala are the two states that have announced that they would not allow the NPR exercise in their states. Ideally, the Prime Minister and Home Minister should have first convinced all state chief ministers, especially non-BJP ruled ones, such as Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan on the perceived usefulness of NPR. Enforcement will only be counter-productive in the prevailing circumstances, when there are widespread protests across the country
Another aspect that is creating some disappointment in West Bengal is that disruption and non-roll-out of NPR could act as a dampener for retired officials, who were looking forward to temporary engagement for six months to one year as enumerators and allied jobs.
NPR and Census are mammoth exercises and require deployment of a very large number of people. The RGI & CC supplements the available government staff with large-scale hiring of retired officials on monthly consolidated remuneration plus allowances for travel and other specified purposes.
It may be mentioned that during the last Census in 2011, that is after NPR in 2010, the RGI & CC had carried out an awareness programme in schools to acquaint students with the significance of Census operations for the national economy. Sixty-eighty schools in each of the 640 districts were selected for this awareness campaign. Indications are that this campaign will be repeated in Census 2021.
The writer is a freelancer based in Kolkata.