Modi wave is out in heat and rains for a test, Congress fights for its existence and regional parties continue to forge the great grand alliance. Who is going to be a winner of 2019 race?
In April-May 2019, an estimated 900 million Indians will be heading to the polls to elect their next Prime Minister. In the 70-odd years since India’s independence, this will likely be the first election that seriously challenges the country’s inclusive political culture.
If the current government led by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures another emphatic mandate, the country may move an inch closer to becoming a majoritarian state, at least that’s what the experts and media is claiming.
A decisive victory can give the BJP hegemonic control over all state institutions, as well as the media and public discourse. We have seen this with past examples like NDTV, RBI, CBI and others. This would further undermine the integrity and autonomy of different stakeholders involved in the governance of the state like the judiciary, public watchdogs and, more importantly, state-run educational institutions.
The contest will in part be a referendum on Narendra Modi, the 68-year-old prime minister who in 2014 brought his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to a single-party parliamentary majority almost after three decades. The landslide victory suggested broad endorsement for its pro-business and Hindu-nationalist stance, as well as support for Mr. Modi’s carefully tended mix of patriarchal mien, folksy talk and energetic boosterism. But after five years in office, the hoop hoolah surrounding the former tea-boy from Gujarat has faded. Mr. Prime Minister’s political magic button, marked “resentment at ruling elites”, no longer produces a roar of approval.
His party and its platform, which seemed to be an unstoppable movement until halfway through Mr. Modi’s term, has grown to be less powerful in recent times. The BJP still has more money by far than any political rival, thanks to wealthy and loyal patrons, as it remains a key asset in Indian elections. Party’s discipline, layer-wise formation, star-studded speakers gallery, placement of tactical leaders at the top (Ram Madhav, Sunil Bansal, Sunil Deodhar to name few) and robust network of Hindu-nationalist groups (VHP Bajrang Dal, Ram Vahini and many others) has been the core strength. Yet after all this stored in the arsenal, some recent chain of events has made people and political experts believe that the “Namo” puzzle can be solved, it is not invincible.
Needless to say, Mr. Modi’s powerful push for free-market reforms has also backfired to a great extent. Misguided policies such as the overnight “demonetization” of 86% of India’s currency in 2016 or inept ones such as the clumsy imposition of needlessly high and complex national sales taxes in 2018 or a failure to address a looming bad-debt crunch in state-owned banks.
At the other end of India’s vast social scale, farmers, lower-caste Hindus and religious minorities all have reason to fall out of love with the BJP. PM’s tenure has seen an ugly surge in violence directed against India’s less privileged, often by groups or individuals associated with the Hindu-nationalist right wing ideology. The poor have also been hit by rising global oil prices, a weaker Indian rupee and falling farmgate prices. Intellectuals, journalists, academics and other opinion-makers, meanwhile, have been put off by the Modi government’s dictatorial style, on the contrary as many might have thought, the BJP has simply systemically placed its own loyalists to run the same old system.
Rahul Gandhi appears to be nowhere close to Modi in case of comparison. The political maturity and intelligence remain to be highly contested between both these popular leaders. However, the recent elections in Hindi heartland and social media especially Twitter (because people are retweeting RaGa more than NaMo quite often) give some hope for a healthy revival of Congress across the nation. No one expects Congress to take on the BJP on its own and that’s where the strategy of Congress for stitching anti-BJP forces coalition, largely composed of the regional and identity-based parties, comes into the picture. But, in a recent move, SP and BSP have joined hands to contest the upcoming general elections of 2019 in Uttar Pradesh, without Congress. Something to worry!
So as we go ahead and delve deeper in analyzing the political trends for coming few months, one thing is for sure that amidst thousands of factors influencing the upcoming general elections, 2019 is going to be a crucial year in the history of modern Indian politics.
(These are personal views of the author)