Guwahati: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah addressed four election rallies in Assam last week but contrary to people’s expectations, they did not mention the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). However, Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, on Sunday said the Centre will not introduce any bill or law against the interests of the Northeast. He also said if the CAB was introduced in future, it may exclude the Northeastern states.
The silence of Modi and Shah and Rijiju’s statement came at a time when the BJP is eyeing at least 20 Lok Sabha seats of the total 25 in the region and CAB may play spoilsport in its plans. Though the changing stand of the BJP over the bill is only a poll gimmick for opposition parties, the saffron party sees the change in tone as a fresh attempt to bring the region on board again.
“The Centre will not introduce any bill or law that would harm the interests of the people of the northeast. It’s only to show the party’s respect to the sentiments of the people of the region that BJP did not table the bill in Rajya Sabha. Misinformation is being spread regarding the bill and the Centre will only take a step after clearing the doubts in consultation with the state governments. If needed, the bill will exclude the N-E states,” Rijiju said.
Party insiders say the BJP’s ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ campaign, which had witnessed support in the Northeastern states, was hit by the massive public outcry in the region against the bill. “After the assembly election setbacks in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, the party doesn’t want to take any chances. The party is now working overtime to shore up support from as many states as possible, including the northeastern states that account for 25 MPs. Issues relating to Assam have been the party’s priority as it sends 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha,” said a party leader on the condition of anonymity.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP won seven seats in Assam, which was then under the Congress rule. Now, when the state is under the party’s rule, securing more seats could turn out to be crucial for the BJP, the source added.
The BJP, which has renewed its ties with the regional party of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) following a seat-sharing arrangement and a promise to hold a discussion with the latter over CAB, is hoping to get as many as 12 MPs in its kitty this poll with its partners. The AGP had walked out of the government in January but later patched up with the BJP ahead the polls.
“It seems like the BJP is finally realising the people’s resentment over CAB. They (BJP) had also promised us that if CAB is brought back in future, then it'll be with the consent of the people of the state. The change in tone is obvious after the massive public outcry against it. The AGP is firm against the bill at any cost,” said AGP leader and legislator from the Gauhati West constituency, Ramendra Narayan Kalita. The AGP leader, however, stated that the regional party would welcome the move if the BJP decides to exclude the N-E states from the CAB.
But the National People’s Party (NPP), one of the key allies in the BJP floated North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), did not buy the change in the rhetoric from BJP leaders. Upset with the BJP’s push for CAB, the NPP was already fighting the Lok Sabha polls separately.
Dilip Bora, NPP's Assam convener, said: “Rijiju’s statement seems to aim at the forthcoming elections. The NPP had joined the NEDA only to secure the voice of the people of the region in Delhi. But whenever there is a threat to the interest of the region’s people, NPP will stand against it. NPP opposes CAB and will always oppose it and the alliance depends on how the ruling party addresses the issues related to the N-E region.”
Following the anti-CAB movement, the BJP faced a setback when its key NEDA constituents like the NPP, the Mizo National Front and its alliance partner in Tripura — the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) — distanced themselves from the party.
The BJP’s initial stubbornness in bringing the CAB seems to have started to melt after the party witnessed a massive uproar in the northeast. After the bill was passed in Lok Sabha, there were expectations that the CAB would be placed before the Rajya Sabha just before the government’s tenure finished. But surprisingly, that did not happen.
“The bill was opposed by our allies and even BJP’s Arunachal Pradesh government. There were massive protests across the region. It's the duty of the government to listen to the people's choice and respect it. It was for this reason that we dropped the Citizenship Bill and never introduced it in the Upper House,” Rijiju asserted.
But holding back the bill hasn’t sufficiently allayed the concerns of the people in the region who fear an exodus of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
Peasant leader and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) Akhil Gogoi said, “The BJP’s current stand is a bait before the poll. The BJP had promised to make Assam free of immigrants and grant ST status to six indigenous groups of Assam before the last polls. Did they fulfill it?”
Party sources said the BJP has worked out its electoral plans very astutely by forming alliances with the regional parties, which makes better political sense in the Northeast where regional parties have been playing a major role in the region’s politics and have, on many occasions, emerged stronger than national parties.
“In 2016, after the BJP came to power in Assam uprooting the erstwhile Congress’s reign, NEDA united all the regional parties and soon the saffron camp became a part of the government in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and lately Mizoram. Aiming to keep Congress out of the race, the BJP is totally concentrating on its 'Mission 20' at this moment," said a BJP insider.