Except for BJP and Mamata, all other parties are stranded in the middle.
You can already see the wide contours of the next electoral campaign. If the draft Assam National Register of Citizens has animated anyone more than even the rival protagonists in Assam, it is the BJP leadership and its likely foremost challenger, Mamata Banerjee. The two are already at each other’s throats, the one committing to uphold the sanctity of the register of bona fide citizens against illegal intruders and the other equally ferociously threatening to trash the NRC.
The polarising narrative could reach a crescendo when the final version of the NRC is ready after the 40-odd lakh excluded from the draft have availed of the opportunity to present their credentials as legal citizens. The final NRC is set to be out sometime early next year, that is, weeks before the parliamentary poll. In all probability, the NRC denouement will come during the last session of the 16th Lok Sabha, which might pass an interim budget for 2018-19 ahead of the poll.
Now it is not certain whether voters give any marks for consistency, but if they do BJP could argue that they have all along called for the exclusion of illegal migrants. So have all other parties at different times. In fact, the Assam Accord of 1985 did promise to detect and deport illegals from the state. Not much was achieved in that direction, though. Mamata Banerjee, a Congress Party MP then, had fully supported the weeding out of “Bangladeshi ghuspethiyas” at the time.
Now, after the Supreme Court-directed draft NRC is published, the Congress is at best ambivalent, at worst totally clueless. It is Mamata who has seized the initiative, spewing fire and brimstone. Her motive is clear. With nearly one-third Muslims in the West Bengal, opposing NRC consolidates her grip on this constituency not only in her state but in the rest of the country as well. Let us not be squeamish. Muslims all over the country cannot be appreciative of the entire NRC exercise, knowing as they do that essentially the excluded are their co-religionists from Bangladesh.
Let us digress a bit here. Mamata’s threat of “bloodshed and civil war” over the follow-up on the NRC drew only a muted comment from the usually shrill liberal-secularist crowd, the one which does not hesitate to use the verbal overkill if the perpetrator of the offensive hyperbole is a non-descript member of the Sangh Parivar.
Back to the NRC. There is no denying the issue of Bangladeshis resonates all over the country. A few self-styled idealists might talk of a borderless world, but so long as there are organised countries with huge militaries and other paraphernalia of a nation-state, national borders will continue to be sacrosanct and will need to be defended. Trump might be crazy, which probably he is, but look at the way he has sought to erect barriers against the influx of illegals into America.
You cannot say India is richer than America and therefore should not be exercised if a few million illegals melt into the native multitudes, can you? The economic aspect of the human influx is driven home easily in a poor country with high rates of unemployment and rampant poverty. As the popular narrative goes, Bangladeshis are supposed to have cornered menial jobs in small and big towns in much of the country, barring perhaps Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The allied question of security finds easy traction given the unending jihadi terror in Kashmir and the constant attempts to undermine the country’s sovereignty. The imagery of a nation always under threat from ISI-sponsored terror is not hard to conjure up on the stump, especially when ordinary Indians resent the presence of Bangladeshi intruders amidst them, performing everyday humdrum tasks like plying cycle-rickshaws or their women working as household helps.
The above pitch from the election pulpit will be hard to match by Mamata’s shrill defence of what in 2005 in the Lok Sabha she had called ghuspethiyas. Mayawati and others in the Opposition with their gaze too fixed on the Muslim vote would like to join Mamata, but they have to be necessarily muted, given the Hindu sentiments. As for the Congress Party, it is caught on the horns of a dilemma. The former Congress Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, has welcomed it—it is a matter of political survival for him in Assam—the central leadership is rather ambiguous, issuing inane caveats which are neither here nor there.
Just when Rahul Gandhi was exerting his energies going to temples and muths to acquire an image of a practising Hindu, the party cannot distance itself from NRC and thus undo the effort at one go. Besides, realpolitik often calls for tough decisions. Taking a stand on what in popular parlance is the illegal Bangladeshis issue will test Rahul’s leadership skills, even if he wants to wriggle out, the coming electoral jousts will not allow him to sit on his hands.
So far, only the BJP and Mamata’s Trinamool Congress have taken a clear-cut for and against stand. Others harbouring ambitions of winning power in 2019 too will have to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, the electoral gains of the census of the illegals in Assam, with the demand bound for one to be conducted in West Bengal as well, will accrue to the BJP, while Mamata will fortify her hold on the Muslim constituency. Ironically, the rival gladiators seem to be oblivious to the fact that among the 40 lakh excluded at least one-third happen to be Hindus. Unconcerned, both BJP and Mamata are happy playing partisan politics over NRC with an eye on the coming elections.
* Pictures do not lie, unless they are morphed. This one about Rahul Gandhi visiting an unconscious Karunanidhi in a Chennai hospital tells you something. A thin smile plays on his lips while all others in the frame look dead serious. Don’t trust me, pull out last Wednesday’s papers and see what I mean. Reminds of the first brief interaction the mother-and-son had with the media soon after the 2014 results. Which lends weight to the question the feisty Cabinet Minister Harsimrat Kaur asked Rahul during the debate on the no-trust motion. What was he smoking?
* Following kidney replacement, Arun Jaitley’s forced confinement is likely to end soon. Sometime later this month, he will start going to North Block. However, he is required to take a lot of precautions in order to avoid infection. He should be completely free to go back to his old gregarious self only after another six months or so—yes, you cannot be too careful when you have had a major surgery and are vulnerable to all manner of infections.
* Last but not the least, the ruling party circles are agog with excitement that the Prime Minister in his I-Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort will say something earthshaking to steal the Opposition thunder. We wait with bated breath.