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Citizenship Bill: Will BJP stand to gain electorally?

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.
Published : Dec 13, 2019, 1:56 am IST
Updated : Dec 13, 2019, 1:56 am IST

After being passed by both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, it remains a mere formality for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to finally become a law.

There is no doubt that support for the BJP over the citizenship law would be quite large, but party’s electoral gains may not be in proportion to the extent of support.
 There is no doubt that support for the BJP over the citizenship law would be quite large, but party’s electoral gains may not be in proportion to the extent of support.

After being passed by both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, it remains a mere formality for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to finally become a law. There are good reasons for the Opposition to fear that the bill will help the BJP to reap electoral benefits, as this law might lead to more polarisation on religious lines, mainly between Hindus and Muslims, but the electoral gains may not be to the extent the BJP hopes for or the Opposition suspects. The gains for the BJP will depend largely upon how the Opposition responds to the new law.  I suspect, though, that the sharper the campaign against the new law by the Opposition, the greater could be the electoral benefits flowing to the BJP. If the Opposition tones down its attacks on the bill, the BJP could well benefit less. While ordinary people may still not accept the Opposition’s arguments against the bill, the divide between those supporting the bill and those opposing it would not be that sharp.

Ordinary citizens in many areas may well support the new law because for them the argument is quite simple: that the Muslims who have come to India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and living here illegally should be sent back to their respective countries.  People would hardly bother about things like cut-off dates and about which religious communities are going to be exempted under this new law. While the Opposition parties are accusing the BJP of playing politics with the law on citizenship, many people may think that these parties are playing the game of minority appeasement. This might increase the polarisation between communities, that could in turn eventually help the BJP.

There is no doubt that support for the BJP over the citizenship law would be quite large, but party’s electoral gains may not be in proportion to the extent of support. The reasons are simple. Though the BJP managed to win 303 seats in the Lok Sabha with 37 per cent voteshare in the 2019 general election, the party still found it difficult to expand beyond the Vindhyas, with Karnataka as the only exception.  The Citizenship Bill issue is also going to have little resonance among people in all the southern states, even though states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have a sizeable number of Muslims. Since these states do not share boundaries with any other country from where possible illegal migration could have taken place, ordinary people in these states would hardly bother about this issue. While there is always the possibility of the BJP increasing its support base in some of the southern states, that will not be due to greater support for the party due to this
new law.

In states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Bihar, with varying degrees of Muslim populations, this could become an issue, but with limited impact as these states do not share boundaries with other countries from where there could be illegal migration. There may still be people who may have infiltrated into Indian territory through some other states sharing a “porous boundary” with other countries, and may have settled down in one of these states, but the numbers of such people would be very small, and could not be an issue for most voters. Also, it is important to note that the BJP has already registered a massive victory in most of these states both in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. There is a limited possibility of BJP increasing its tally of seats in many of these states. The BJP has won all 25 Lok Seats in Rajasthan, 28 of the 29 seats in MP, nine of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in Chhattisgarh, 11 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand, 62 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP and 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar (in alliance with JD(U) and LJP).There is not much scope for the BJP to improve upon its 2019 electoral performance, even if BJP become much more popular and gains larger support due to the new citizenship law. The gains for the BJP from the two western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra could be very limited for two reasons—one, that the BJP has already won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat and 41 of the 48 seats in Maharashtra in alliance with the Shiv Sena.

The states to watch out for are Assam and West Bengal, as the new law will significantly impact the politics of these two states. The two states account for a total of 55 Lok Sabha seats (13 in Assam and 42 in West Bengal) and the BJP has been able to make inroads in these two states. In Assam, the BJP won nine Lok Sabha seats and polled 36 per cent of the vote; while in West Bengal it won 18 Lok Sabha seats and polled 40 per cent votes. There is still a scope for the BJP to increases its tally of seats in both Assam and West Bengal.

The National Register of Citizens exercise carried out in Assam last year was immensely controversial and the past few days have seen massive protests erupting in Assam over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s response to the Citizenship Bill is well known. She has publicly announced that her government will not implement the new law. It is important to note that both states share a boundary with Bangladesh and the two states also have a large Muslim population, some of them allegedly being illegal migrants. This issue is certainly going to be the biggest factor when both states hold Assembly elections in April-May
2021. Only time can tell how this issue might play out in the forthcoming Assembly polls in West Bengal and Assam, and that would give us an indication of how big it might become during the big fight of 2024.

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