The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has led to a fierce political contest. While the government has staunchly defended its passage, the Opposition – as well as a wider set of civil society organisations, university students, minority groups, and citizens in the Northeast – have taken to the streets to oppose the Act. This has made the CAA – and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) – among the most contentious issues of recent times.
While the content of the legislation and its constitutionality have been widely debated, it will also have political and electoral implications. This will be most visible in the nature of the campaign, mobilisation and outcome in assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2020, and Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam in 2021.
Take Delhi first. After the rout in the Lok Sabha elections, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, reoriented its strategy. It unleashed a range of welfare measures, publicised its work on health and education, toned down its criticism of Narendra Modi, and emerged as the clear favourite for the polls. The fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not have a strong local face and was internally divided, and even pro-Modi voters were willing to vote for Kejriwal in the state polls, added to this perception that the AAP was ahead.
The CAA, however, has put the question of identity at the centre stage in the capital and redrawn the political landscape. The fact that protests and violence took place in Jamia and Seelampur, and in Jama Masjid, has been picked up by the BJP to emphasise the Muslim mobilisation behind it. This, in turn, has given the party room to allege that the AAP is favouring minorities, and suggest to Hindu voters that only the BJP is acting in their, as well as broader national, interest. Kejriwal himself sought to stay away from the CAA debate till as long as he could. But given its centrality, he has now taken a strong position against it. The Delhi election will provide a clue to whether voters will prioritise local concerns, local leaders, and governance issues, or whether a national issue – the CAA-NRC – will prevail.
The equation in Bihar is different. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United is a BJP ally, and backed the CAA. But there was an internal backlash in the party, with vice president Prashant Kishor dissenting against the party’s position. Kumar has now said that Bihar will not undertake the NRC exercise. The state has also witnessed mass protests, particularly in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region. The Muslims of the state will consolidate behind the Opposition alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress.
This does not worry the BJP, for it has won despite Muslim consolidation in the state, including, most recently, in the Lok Sabha polls. But what will be of concern for the party is whether the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) stays together. After the sweep in the Lok Sabha elections (the BJP won all 17 seats it contested), many in the party felt this was the time to go it alone and win power in the state. But home minister Amit Shah made it clear that the alliance would be led by Nitish Kumar as the CM face. If a possible rift over NRC cracks the alliance, and Kumar switches sides again, the BJP will face a challenge.
In 2021, the Tamil Nadu elections will be fought on an entirely different set of issues, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) the clear favourite to replace the fractured and weak All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But the CAA issue will crop up because the DMK will point out, as it did in Parliament, that the law excludes the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who have been victims of persecution and discrimination. The BJP, which is, in any case, extremely weak in the state, will find it hard to respond to the charge.
But the real battle over CAA-NRC will be fought in West Bengal. Many observers believe that the BJP has brought in the legislation to win over the Hindu vote in the state, which is home to many who have migrated from Bangladesh over the decades. The NRC experience in Assam, where hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Hindus were excluded from the register, created doubts among even those who voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. With the legislation, the BJP hopes to both assure Hindu voters that they are safe, and play on their resentment against Muslim “outsiders”. But Mamata Banerjee is a formidable adversary. She has already begun mass mobilisation on the issue, leading a march almost every day last week on the streets of Kolkata. Banerjee was told after the LS elections, in which the BJP beat all expectations to win 18 seats, that her image of being “pro-Muslim” cost the Trinamool Congress. Confident that Muslims will stay with the party, Banerjee has now changed track to articulate her opposition to the CAA-NRC in broader terms – as an attack on Bengali sub-nationalism, and as an attack on the poor who will be burdened disproportionately by the exercise.
And finally, the CAA-NRC issue will be relevant in the state where it all began – Assam. It was the exclusion of Hindus in the NRC, which was the trigger for the legislation. And the BJP can reasonably hope to win the support of the Bengali-speaking Hindus of the Barak Valley. But it will face a fierce challenge in the Brahmaputra Valley, where indigenous Assamese have launched a movement against the law, fearing an influx of outsiders.
In 2016, the BJP won in Assam because it campaigned on the plank of expelling outsiders. But the law – which extends the cut-off for migrants who can access expedited citizenship from 1971 as stipulated in the Assam Accord to 2014 – has made its older voters doubt the BJP’s intent.
The problem, Assam’s sub-nationalists argue, is with all “outsiders”, not just Muslims. While the BJP has sought to allay apprehensions about newer migrants coming in, it will have a difficult task in convincing the locals.
The CAA will, thus, impinge on and shape every election from now on, in varying degrees. Whether the move politically yields dividends for the BJP can only be ascertained when the people speak in the polling booths.