BJP president Amit Shah flagged off Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's pre-poll tour on Saturday, setting the tone for elections in two critical states governed by the party due later this year. His fiery speech in Rajasthan's Rajsamand made it clear that not just "vikas" (development), but national security and the hotly-debated Assam citizens' register NRC will make strategic appearances in BJP's campaign agenda for the November polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Though neither Rajasthan nor Madhya Pradesh have a significant Bangladeshi immigrant population, Mr Shah stoked the issue while he also tore into the opposition Congress over the alleged lack of development in the state under its rule.
"Should we have a citizens register? Should illegal Bangladeshi immigrants be asked to leave? We want to know what the Congress thinks. Ask Rahul Gandhi this question when he comes to Rajasthan. This is a question of national security," he said.
According to official figures, there are about a 1,000 Bangladeshis living illegally in Rajasthan. Home Ministry sources say it could be over 1 lakh. The state had a population of 6.89 crore according to the 2012 census.
Rajasthan is also home to about 25,000 Pakistani Hindu refugees but Mr Shah was silent on the government's policy towards them.
The subject of illegal immigrants in Rajasthan was also raised in the state assembly but in 2015. Home Minister Gulab Chand Katariya, replying on the floor of the house, agreed that the number of illegal migrants have increased. Mr Kataria accepted that it is indeed tough to calculate the numbers and identify them as they don't directly come to Rajasthan after crossing the Indo-Bangladesh border. Most of them come to the state after residing in other parts of the country with fake passports and visas making it difficult for authorities to prove their original nationality.
At a press conference last week, the home minister had said all states should study the Assam experiment and make a citizens' register to weed out illegal immigrants.
But Amit Shah's statement at the beginning of the 58-day election tour called 'Rajasthan Gaurav Yatra', even as Vasundhara Raje talked only about the development done by her government, brought the debate on illegal migrants and refugees living in India to the forefront.
BJP sources admit that the Raje government faces a strong anti-incumbency factor and hopes that the high-decibel campaign will counter that.
New schools, drinking water projects and sports facilities worth about Rs 106 crore were announced for Rajsamand district alone where the rally began.
Senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot said recently, "People are angry with Vasundhara Raje in particular. She has not delivered on her promises despite the huge majority with which she came in power."
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