It was a year like no other. India was trapped in the vortex of tumultuous events that threatened to crack the very idea of India. Indian politics seemed to redefine itself.
The government meandered from one controversy to the other.
Vigilantes ruled the streets with a new courage as they were not being called out. Some even got garlanded by ministers at public functions for spilling blood of innocents in the name of cow protection or communal strife.
Mobocracy was encouraged as extremist groups were not reined in while attacking minorities. Most of the attacks were based on rumors or false charges. There have been nearly 40 such attacks that have killed ten people.
Political culture swung from bad to worse triggering off widespread anger and cynicism. One cannot blame anyone for that as priorities for a country that was supposed to take off seemed so lop sided and out of place. Ruling party leaders made bizarre statements that had no scientific backing making them an object of ridicule. It highlighted how politics was the only area where you did not need an educational qualification to get a job.
BJP ruled states like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh kept on focusing on the cow rather than governance. Rajasthan imposed a 20 per cent cess on liquor to fund cow protection and welfare. Maharashtra followed with steps to set up a Cow Service Commission to oversee cow shelters. Uttarakhand declared the cow as rashtra mata or mother of the nation. Not to be left behind in copycat politics, the Congress in Madhya Pradesh promised in its manifesto to create a gaushala in every district. Everyone was trying to play to the gallery.
Made in India that was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, went for a toss. One shining example of that was when the Sardar Patel statue built at a stupendous cost of Rs. 3,000 crores was largely built by a Chinese company. Made in India was a great slogan and it remained just that. It failed to bring in foreign direct investment into manufacturing. Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha In his latest book, “India Unmade-How the Modi government broke the economy”, lashed out at the BJP led government for its economic policies.
Political parties activated their dirty tricks department to float fake videos and fake news trying to use all kinds of propaganda to sway voters.
While Modi was telling the World Economic Forum at Davos that India was a great destination for investors as it had wellness, peace and prosperity, his party leaders back home were silently watching the ridiculous drama of right wing and party supporters wreak havoc on the streets as they wanted to stop the screening of Padmavat, a film on a mythological queen. The vandalisers were egged on by Rajput leaders like Lokendra Singh Kalvi, chief of the Karni Sena. He openly threatened violence along with other Rajput leaders who threatened that Rajput women would immolate themselves in protest. They were not arrested. The film maker ultimately was forced to insert a disclaimer before the start of the film saying that it was a piece of fiction. Showed that even creative freedom had been thrown out of the window. All through the year, intolerance was in the air. Almost as if that was the right thing to pursue.
Farmers got organized as never before and marched the streets demanding that the government listen to them. All of a sudden, the government realized that they cannot be ignored and started announcing huge farm loan waivers.
There were surprise upsets in various state elections. Voters were not as stupid as politicians thought them to be.
Forgetting they were voted to power to improve the state of the economy and create job opportunities that would lift millions out of poverty, leaders concentrated on spreading hatred among communities, building expensive statues and renaming cities and roads-as if that would balloon their vote-bank. That it did not, is another story of how India votes.
The Ram Temple construction also suddenly hit the headlines almost every day as the Lok Sabha elections inch closer. It almost seemed that there was nothing else in the country that mattered.
Political leaders in the rural dispensation did not see how the toxic mix of present day politics and religion could sow seeds of intolerance and hatred and how such combative politics that justified violence could lead to divisions that can crack society.
Most of this violence and hate mongering will snowball into something much larger than we imagine. A lot of the consequential damage will be irreversible. It will be a heavy price to pay.
The phrase, “ache din” lost its halo and was only used in sarcastic conversations.
Wanting to take one more state under its wing, the BJP tied up a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir. It was an unholy alliance of sorts as both had conflicting ideologies but since power was the criteria, it was the way to go. As the internal security situation in Kashmir became unmanageable and would be certainly seen as a failure of the current government, the BJP adroitly pulled out of the coalition. The Mehbooba Mufti led government collapsed. The BJP had 25 lawmakers while the PDP had 28 in the assembly.
The Indo-Pak border witnessed firing from both Pakistan and India almost every day as relations between the two nuclear powers deteriorated and all attempts at talks failed. But the government of the day for the first time announced that a surgical strike day will now be celebrated. More than anything it showed how the government had failed on the foreign policy front.
Parliament functioned in fits and starts with most of the time being lost due to adjournments caused by bad behavior of law makers. It was a year of contentious debates though with unanswered questions about the Rafale deal with France, infighting among the top brass of the Central Bureau of Investigation and differences between the Reserve Bank of India leadership and the government who wanted the bank to throw its financial wisdom and rationale to the winds and agree to its demands.
One parameter of collapsing governance was internet shutdowns. It became commonplace as state governments resorted to it hoping to stem increasing violence, social unrest or an ongoing law and order problem. There were over 100 such shutdowns and over 40 of them were in Kashmir. In 2013, there were just five shutdowns.
At this time last year, it almost seemed that the BJP was invincible as they had captured power in most of India’s mainline states. Even in states like Goa and Manipur where they did not have a clear majority, they managed to rustle up support and form a government aptly aided by the governor who chose not to invite the opposition that had larger numbers.
But after twelve months, the picture is changing as four mainline states have been lost. It began with Karnataka. The governor called in the BJP which had lesser numbers but chief minister B S Yeddyurappa could not hold it as he knew he would lose when the assembly would vote. The Congress had larger numbers but allowed the regional party with fewer seats to take the front seat with H D Kumaraswamy bargaining to be made the chief minister in case it had to be a coalition government. Attempts have been made by the BJP to crack the coalition by encouraging defections, but Kumaraswamy has managed to hold on by placating greedy MLA’s with cabinet posts. The voters of Karnataka did not have a great choice but the BJP lost out due to rampant corruption.
Then came the results of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where BJP had ruled. Pollsters were surprised when they were voted out. Indian politics looked suddenly poised for change and no more were political pundits sitting in air-conditioned television studios and saying that 2019 would be another cakewalk for Modi and his party that had swept the 2014 elections.
Does a united opposition have a chance? It depends on how united they actually are and what their plan of action is in terms of what they will deliver to the electorate. Political parties got aligned with strange bedfellows as leaders smiled in photo ops it seemed incongruous. The opposition will have credibility only if it has a common vision and a systematic workable plan for India and its future. Just clubbing all parties is not going to help and it remains to be seen if wisdom will dawn on them.
Mayawati who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party has seemingly not shown any inclination of going with anyone as she dreams of emerging as a kingmaker.
M K Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam feels that the Congress with Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial face should be calling the shots.
But Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao disagrees. He wants to stich a coalition that has nothing to do with the BJP or the Congress. He nurses national ambitions now after his recent victory in the state and is trying to rope in West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik to concur with him.
A joint united opposition has a golden chance to unseat the BJP in Delhi now as there is public anger simmering due to the effects of demonetization, GST, rural distress, inflation, unemployment and increasing communalism. More than anything, there is a general feel that the last four years have seen more of rhetoric than concerted action. It is a chance the opposition cannot afford to lose and if they do, they would have to blame themselves for their stupidity that stems from their greed for power.
Sensing the direction of the wind changing, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu quit the National Democratic Alliance to hold hands with various opposition parties who are attempting to form a united coalition against the BJP in 2019.
The BJP which was a hard bargainer in 2014 can no more hold that position. Naturally, it has given in to parties like the Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar offering it six seats and guaranteeing that its leader Ram Vilas Paswan would be elected to the Rajya Sabha from the state. This was unimaginable four years ago. More such arrangements and adjustments will have to be made to rally alliances in every state in the run up to the polls.
As the BJP failed to make inroads into Kerala which is dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, it whipped up the Sabrimala temple entry for women issue as it was highly emotive and so garnered a lot of support all of a sudden. But, will it translate into votes? Clearly, the BJP is not going to have an easy time in 2019 in any of the southern states.
If Rahul Gandhi has to emerge as an alternative leader on the national scene, he will have to have the courage to take tough decisions to revamp his party dominated by jaded elders, infuse young blood into the leadership and inspire its grassroot workers to fight a spirited battle with the organized and cash rich BJP. One thing is certain: 2019 will see one of the most interesting elections that we have witnessed since independence.
(Published on 31th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 01)