We may see a settlement for the Ram Mandir issue in 2018, with a bhoomi poojan slated for Ram Navmi 2019, around April.
As 2017 draws to a close, we can conclude that this was the year when Indian politics demonstrated all traits of how a one-day international cricket match progresses in the middle overs. The government, the batting team, consolidated its position in the early part of the year. The opposition, the bowlers, managed to bowl a few good deliveries towards the end of the year. The former rejoiced actual election wins, the latter took solace in moral victories earned from deliveries going past the edge.
The Narendra Modi government has been slow and steady, rather than fast and furious, in some ways disappointing both supporters and opponents. The former was looking for rapid change, here and now. The latter was hoping Modi’s relative Delhi inexperience will lead to the government crumbling under the weight of its missteps. Neither has happened – Modi government has been surefooted and stodgy – a bit like watching Alastair Cook bat during one of his centuries. It has not been pretty, but it has been effective and it’s largely getting the work done.
Several events added to the relative strength of this government, which is not facing any great unpopularity in its fourth year. The personal approval ratings of Modi as determined by surveys from Pew Research remain high. Yet, Modi being far more popular than Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also remains his biggest risk. In election after election, he has to ensure that people vote on his name, even if they are dissatisfied with other elements of the BJP. This theme played out favourably for him in 2017, and will also dominate the events of 2018.
The 2017 Highlights
Assembly election wins: The BJP formed governments in Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in March and then, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in December. It lost power in Punjab, but Shiromani Akali Dal spearheaded the campaign, so there wasn’t much damage for the BJP. Winning elections was critical to demonstrate to the supporters that the party continues to enjoy tremendous national goodwill. It was also important to signal to the media houses that the party juggernaut is still rolling.
The Indian media treatment of the BJP is a bit like how pink press calls a recession. When a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) declines for one quarter, a recession is declared. However, it takes two quarters of uptick to declare that the economy is out of recession. Had BJP lost a single election, the media would have quickly written obituaries of this government and decline of the Modi magic. Having won six elections, installed 14 chief ministers (CMs), and now administering 68 per cent of India’s population and 75 per cent of the country’s area along with its allies however, qualifies as nothing but a footnote in media analysis of political power equations.
The rise of Yogi: The rise of Yogi Adityanath is the single biggest event in the history of Indian politics since the Modi win in 2014. It may take even bigger proportions in hindsight, depending on how the BJP fares over the next few years. He actively campaigned in Gujarat, and got into the Karnataka campaign rallies much before Modi and party president Amit Shah did. Yogi also showed up in Kerala, where the party is trying to expand its base.
Politics does not lend itself very favourably to succession planning. But is Modi giving Adityanath a broader platform and higher visibility? It certainly does appear so.
The Nitish switch: Nitish Kumar dumped the alliance with Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress and joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ranks in July. The Uttar Pradesh elections mandate goaded Nitish to run for safety. He clearly chose being a full term Chief Minister over the putative opposition nominee to take on PM Modi in 2019.
This was a big psychological boost for the BJP. This U-turn by Kumar undid one of the only two big state election defeats BJP has faced since assuming office in 2014. The media narrative-builders also had a setback, as they had already primed Kumar for 2019, and were too committed to delegitimise him all of a sudden.
Rahul comes of age (no, seriously!): Rahul Gandhi was appointed the Congress party president, after a democratic intra-party election process which would have made Admiral-General Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya (The Dictator, 2012) proud. The de facto moved to de jour. It also ended the possibility of a non-Congress leader spearheading the 2019 opposition campaign.
The Gujarat campaign did bring out a new Rahul. Even his most ardent critics have to admit that he campaigned cohesively and coherently, did not falter in his speeches, and did not look disinterested. Now this may not be good enough to take on PM Modi just yet, but with the backing of nation-wide organisational machinery, self appointed centre-left intellectuals, and an army of nongovernmental organisations, Rahul has done enough to ensure no third name crops up for the 2019 challenge.
Political Overton window shift: 2017 will mark the year when India’s political Overton window shifted decidedly in favour of Hindu politics. From then PM Manmohan Singh, in the peak days of UPA, conceding first right on India’s natural resources to the minorities, the change to Rahul Gandhi visiting 27 Gujarat temples in a space of a few weeks of Gujarat campaign, marked the biggest change in political power equations since Lal Krishna Advani’s 1991 rath yatra.
The talk of Hindu interests will now actively form poll issues. It will be very difficult for Rahul Gandhi to back out of his janeu-dhari commitment. And his lead will be followed by other opposition leaders at least in the Hindi belt - they will morph into political neutrals, if not Hindu right activists.
What Lies Ahead in 2018?
2018 marks the slog overs phase of the Modi government. While it will try to hit the ball out of the park, the opposition will also bowl yorkers and bouncers. Every single event in the year will be linked to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Here’s a potential list of what lies ahead.
Caste agitations: The day after the narrow Gujarat win, posters came up all over Mumbai warning BJP to be mindful of Maratha concerns or face Gujarat-like results. They had no individual signature or names – just a collective warning. Whether Patidar agitation and later other caste agitations in Gujarat dented the BJP victory or not, they will now be used as a template – the correlation was good enough for Congress, so it will be used as causality. 2018 will start with a big gathering in January at the village of Koregaon near Pune, where the victory of the Mahar armies against the Peshwas will be celebrated.
Marathas in Maharashtra, Lingayats in Karnataka, Jats in Rajasthan and Haryana, and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, may all protest against the central government this year. There is a small difference with Gujarat though – none of these communities are BJP’s stock vote banks (except Jats in Uttar Pradesh). So, unlike the Patidars, who always voted BJP over the years, the party may have more leeway in trying to address the concerns of these traditionally landed castes.
Karnataka for BJP: The BJP has been in active campaign mode in Karnataka since October. Its poll engine is already cranking, while the Congress continues to explore caste and religion related areas to find new sweet spots to retain power. The BJP will tell voters that a Congress win in the state will mean the state gets used as a 2019 ATM by Congress, which controls no other big state. A win in Karnataka will help BJP go for the final push on its Congress-mukt Bharat clarion call.
The Congress four-state focus: Three key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls in December 2018. The BJP is the incumbent and all its CMs are facing local problems to varying degrees. Although none of Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh) and Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh) have done anything hugely negative, a voter fatigue may be setting in all the states. Even in Maharashtra, Congress has been revitalising in pockets, and the political entry of a new unifying name like Riteish Deshmukh may galvanise it back in action. There is enough anti-BJP space in the state and Congress can well capitalise on it.
The Congress will focus on these four states in 2018. Any political gains here will be amplified as “Congress is back in the heartland” narrative by the old ecosystem loyal to the Gandhi family. Rahul will then be hailed as the force to reckon with.
A political budget: The 2018 budget will definitely be political in nature rather than economics-driven. The government will let go of the fiscal prudence it has stuck to quite adroitly since 2014. Purse strings will be loosened for farmers and the salaried class. The government has already crossed the rupee-target for fiscal deficit for the year and has announced increased borrowing of Rs 50,000 crores this year.
The 2018 budget will be presented on 1 February if timelines from the last year are stuck to. The sops can come in the form of a universal basic income variant for bottom 25 per cent of population, direct tax rationalisation roadmap to be implemented from 2019 just before the Lok Sabha election, and replication of pro-farmer measures like the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana from Madhya Pradesh.
Popular action: The Modi government will also likely make some big announcements this year. Firstly, we may see a settlement for Ram Mandir, with a 2019 bhoomi poojan. PM Modi has not visited Ayodhya even once since taking oath in 2014. This symbolism cannot be missed – he will only visit the historic town for the temple bhoomi poojan, and what better time to do so than on Ram Navami day in 2019.
Secondly, the government will move on a few big ticket corruption cases this year. One of the enabling measures could be setting up of the fast track courts for looking into the cases pending against the members of parliament and legislative assemblies. These courts will give a verdict in all cases by April 2019 – that’s the current proposal. As per extant rules, the first conviction debars a person from contesting elections. These fast track courts may hence come in play this year – appeals may continue later for years!
But the most important development for 2018 may be the testing of a national mahagathbandhan, a grand alliance on the lines of Bihar 2015. This may happen as early as the Rajasthan Lok Sabha by-polls in January, where Bahujan Samaj Party can actively back Congress. A mini-experiment already happened in the Sikandra assembly by-poll in Kanpur, where BJP still won despite tacit BSP backing for Samajwadi Party. This experiment can be formally tested in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan polls in December – states where BSP has some clout in several seats. Another front of a mahagathbandhan will be in Maharashtra, where Shiv Sena may finally decide to leave the Devendra Fadnavis government and form an alliance along with Congress and Nationalist Congress Party.
PM Modi has played his innings with the hope and self-assurance that his is a multi-term government. He has several ongoing programmes and measures with 2022 targets – the 75th anniversary of India gaining Independence from the British. His supporters have been less assured about the continuity.
We will find out this year which way the balance tilts. The year 2018 promises to be the loudest, shrillest, and most exciting political year ever.