New Delhi: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s muted pitch on the vexed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to placate sentiments in the northeast and win peace with allies in the region could be a short-lived affair.
The party is likely to go shrill on the issue and weave it as part of its Hindutva campaign midway through the Lok Sabha elections, once polling is wrapped up in the northeastern states, said BJP sources.
In the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections beginning 11 April and ending 19 May, five of the seven northeastern sisters vote in the first phase itself, while Tripura votes in the first two phases and Assam — the most sensitive of all with respect to the citizenship issue — votes in the first three phases.
Effectively, elections in the entire region will be over by 23 April.
While the BJP had planned to include the bill as part of its 2019 manifesto, it is likely to go easy on it during campaign speeches till the northeast votes, said sources.
Waiting for northeast to vote
According to a highly placed source in the party, once voting in Assam and the rest of the northeastern states is over, “the issue will be picked up and integrated into our campaign to convey to our core voter across the country how we stand for the cause of Hindus”.
“Not just the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, we will even talk about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as part of our national security approach. That has resonance across the country,” said the source who did not wish to be identified.
The BJP was “adopting a cautious approach on both for now so as not to rock the boat and upset allies” in the region, added the source.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill seeks to give citizenship to refugees who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Assam is in the process of updating the NRC to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
The BJP government’s push for the bill and aggressive stance led to massive protests in Assam and the rest of the region, also alienating its allies.
While the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) parted ways in early January, other key allies in the region like Meghalaya’s National Peoples Party (NPP), the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, and others, also publicly voiced their opposition. The BJP’s own leaders in some of these states came out against the bill and their party’s position.
But with the bill lapsing as the BJP could not ensure its passage in Rajya Sabha, and the party mellowing its stance, tensions in the region have subsided. Not only has the BJP managed to cobble together its alliances in the northeast, but also bring the AGP back to its fold.
In Assam and other parts of the region, the bill created ethnic faultlines, with the indigenous people raising concerns about this leading to their marginalisation.
However, the BJP believes this helps in sending out a “strong message of its commitment to Hindutva” and cater to its voters across the country — which explains why top leaders of the party have talked about it in various forums.
“This shows what we stand for and how we haven’t abandoned our core. The opposition didn’t allow us to enact it, but we did our best and we should tell the voters that,” said another BJP leader on condition of anonymity.
Key states like Uttar Pradesh — which sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha — as well as Bihar and West Bengal vote in all seven phases. Important heartland states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh also go to polls only the fourth phase onward.
States like Delhi and Haryana — important to BJP — vote in the sixth phase on 12 May.
Even in West Bengal, sensitive border constituencies like Barasat, Basirhat and Bangaon, among others, in North 24 Parganas district vote in the later phases. The BJP hopes to make significant gains in West Bengal, which has 42 seats and where it hasn’t been strong traditionally. As part of that strategy, border regions have been crucial for BJP where it has made Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh central to it.
This means once Assam finishes voting on 23 April, the BJP can freely raise the issue hoping to capitalise on it in other areas which vote later.
Through the Supreme Court-monitored NRC, meanwhile, the party wants to sell the narrative of a muscular approach on national security, which acts as a boost to its post-Pulwama pitch.
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