We live, to put it mildly, in “interesting times”. This is an age where TV family serials have given way to political soap operas: Are Akhilesh and Mulayam at war or peace? Or is there a chacha still in-between father and son? We have a prime minister who refuses to take a break even on New Year’s Eve and an Opposition leader who determinedly takes one every year. In 2016, the rupee was demonetised; in 2017, will it be the turn of our politics to shrink into a one man, one party show?
The year 2017 is a big election year. You could argue that every year in India is a big election year. No country has so many elections so often every year. And yet, 2017 is different: It’s the biggest election year since, well, 2014. That was the year of the Narendra Modi sweep, an achievement that was spectacular enough in scale to leave his opponents gasping for breath. Then, he was the challenger; now, as prime minister, he has to strangely prove himself all over again. That’s the way Modi likes it, one senses: He is a 24X7 campaigner, someone who likes to constantly move from one event to another, one speech to the next, one disruptive idea to, well, the next big one. Indian democracy is in perpetual garrulous mode.
The time though for talk is, frankly, over. Demonetisation was arguably an ill-advised but undoubtedly bold move; one that has clearly set the agenda for 2017. But it is one thing to bully bankers to fall in line; what of the people of India? The jury on demonetisation is still out and the five assembly elections will be the closest one will get to a referendum on an issue, which is now totally linked to the prime minister’s persona.
Modi needs to win UP to secure his political future. That may sound strange given that he is a prime minister of a majority government elected for five years of which he has barely completed half the term. But UP is the source of his untrammelled power: Without the 73 MPs of UP, he would be the leader of a creaking coalition government. It is now Modi’s karmabhoomi too: He was, after all, elected from Varanasi. The BJP’s original rise in the early 1990s was in UP, spun around the Ram mandir dream. Since then, a series of ill-timed moves and a lacklustre state leadership have left the BJP struggling for relevance. Now, with the Samajwadi Party caught in a web of bizarre family politics and Mayawati not sure when the taxman will come knocking, this is the BJP’s best opportunity in years: The Modi-Amit Shah duo know a massive win in UP will be enough to almost guarantee another five-year-term in Delhi in 2019.
Later this year, Modi returns to his janmabhoomi. The Gujarat elections are again an opportunity for the BJP to consolidate itself as the dominant party in a state it hasn’t lost since 1995. Demonetisation has hit Modi’s core neo-middle class constituency in his home state. But will the pragmatic Gujarati see a cashless identity in conflict with his religious one?
The stakes are just as high for Modi’s opponents. The Congress enters the New Year in power in five states and one union territory, but it could end the year in power in just two states and Puducherry. That would make the position of the Congress leadership increasingly shaky and bring Modi-Shah within striking distance of fulfilling their dream of a “Congress mukt Bharat”. Punjab is probably the best hope for redemption for the Congress which is perhaps why its more astute strategists have now shifted their base to Chandigarh from Lucknow.
Ironically, another major opposition party with much at stake in 2017 is also looking at Punjab now for its revival. For AAP, victory in Punjab and a strong showing in Goa would position Arvind Kejriwal as a potential challenger to Modi in 2019. Kejriwal’s maverick style makes him someone who can shatter the status quo. If AAP loses Punjab, then it will reduce Kejriwal to a city mayor with limited powers, hardly the ideal platform to build upon for his national ambitions.
And yet, beyond just winners and losers, politics in 2017 needs to find a way to evolve into something more meaningful than just sharp slogans and high-pitched rhetoric aimed at wooing gullible voters. The global rise of populist demagogues like Donald Trump suggests a growing fatigue with political correctness and liberal values. As politics lurches to the Right, there are many putative Trumps waiting to rise, consciously tapping into hate-filled identity politics. Liberal politics maybe on the retreat across India and the world: Finding a new template for its revival is a challenge and an opportunity in 2017.
Post-script: 2016 was a nightmare year for psephologists, many of whom got the two big verdicts in Britain and the United States horribly wrong. Another bad year in 2017, and maybe most of them will simply have to wind up operations. With their credibility on the line, all one can wish is a Happy News Year to all.