Without doubt, elections will dominate the political news cycle in 2018. Apart from the year-long cacophony of Assembly elections in eight states — Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram — there will be loud whispers about 2019’s Lok Sabha election. Politics may see realignment, and tacit or overt understanding or positioning among key players.
For the incumbent BJP, the biggest national message could come early next year, in the last full Budget of the Narendra Modi government. At the regional level, the ruling party will calibrate its position in accordance with its electoral prospects. There could be attempts at wooing regional players where the BJP is by itself weak, and aggressive posturing at places where it seeks to consolidate its pole position, or where the regional players are not ready to do business with it.
For the Congress, the task is two-fold. First, new president Rahul Gandhi must get his own team in place for what has been called India’s “grand old and young party”. Second, the Congress must stake claim to the role of anchor for the entire opposition — and engage with smaller but powerful regional forces to create an alternative to the BJP.
Indeed, regional players will be the most watched right up to 2019’s election. The two star acts: whether the SP and the BSP can come together in Uttar Pradesh, and whether the CPM can resolve its internal debate over an understanding with the Congress against the BJP at the national level.
Two issues currently in the Supreme Court could impact the political narrative. The Babri Masjid case can sharpen religious tension, while the Aadhaar case judgment could have major repercussions for the government’s welfare initiatives for the poor.
The state elections
Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and Karnataka are likely to go to the polls in the first half of 2018, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram following later in the year. The BJP will try to oust incumbents in Meghalaya, Tripura and Karnataka, and hold on to its governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Barring Karnataka, Rajasthan and Meghalaya, in the other five states, entrenched multi-term regimes will be tested. Two days after the Gujarat vote, PM Narendra Modi travelled to Meghalaya to sound the poll bugle for the BJP; in Karnataka, his party has been seeking to mobilise popular opinion against the celebration of the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan. Unlike elsewhere, the BJP has declared its CM candidate, B S Yeddyurappa, in the largest state the Congress now rules. Tripura, where the CPM’s Manik Sarkar has been CM since 1998, and where several Congress and Trinamool leaders have switched to the BJP, could see the first real saffron versus red contest. The battles in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, coming closest to 2019, will provide an indication of who has the momentum for the Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP’S messaging
2018 will see the Modi government attempt to consolidate and communicate its achievements. Having come some distance from the disruption of demonetisation and GST, the BJP will package its initiatives of the last four years as transformational change. The government’s last full Budget could see an attempt to address accumulated grievances, and woo farmers and the middle class.
Politically, the BJP will seek to position itself differently in diverse regional contexts. In West Bengal, Kerala, Odisha and Telangana, where it cannot negotiate with local players, it may get shriller. In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, a more nuanced strategy may be visible, with the BJP playing balancing games with the JD(S), AIADMK, DMK and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). While Modi anchors the larger national messaging, regional units will work to craft local deals and calibrate positions through 2018.
Rahul and the Congress
2018 presents the last chance to the Congress to put up a fight against the BJP’s seemingly invincible juggernaut. Its performance in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat, is likely to give some confidence to the party rank and file. With Rahul Gandhi’s election as president, and his recalibration of the party’s positioning — evident in his visits to temples in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat — the grand old party has shown some nimble footed-ness.
As Rahul puts together his team by early 2018, some of the old guard is likely to make way for younger leaders. In the battles for Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, on test will be Rahul Gandhi’s capability to balance the older and newer state leaderships — Jyotiraditya Scindia and Arun Yadav with Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh; Bhupesh Baghel with Ajit Jogi; Sachin Pilot with Ashok Gehlot and C P Joshi respectively. How he fares will determine his — and the Congress’s — strength going into 2019.
The ascendance of the BJP has impacted almost all regional players — the communists in West Bengal, the BJD in Odisha, the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the RJD and JD(U) in Bihar, the INLD in Haryana, the NCP in Maharashtra, the JD(S) in Karnataka, the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. Survival instincts brought arch rivals Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar together for 2015’s Bihar Assembly election before personal egos tore them apart. The CPM leadership is likely to take a call by April 2018 on a possible electoral alliance with the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP and BSP could start exploring the possibility of coming together against the BJP. Whether the BJD remains equidistant from the BJP and the Congress after the former demonstrated its heft in local body elections, and whether the YSR Congress drops its ambivalence to close ranks with the opposition in Andhra Pradesh, remains to be seen. As regional players weigh realignments in 2018, a key factor will be how they position themselves vis-à-vis the Congress — whether they accept it as the anchor of opposition unity, or seek to bend it to their will.
The issues for 2019
Over the last years of UPA 2, the alleged corruption of the government developed into a main issue for 2014’s election. While the 2G scam case verdict in the trial court has given the Congress-led opposition an opportunity to try to wash off the taint, opposition parties are striving hard to stick a graft charge on the BJP. The charges and rebuttals on the Rafale deal appears such an attempt. How the issue of corruption will be leveraged will play out in 2018.
The new year will also see the coalescing of other issues. While the opposition began with trying to paint the Modi regime as anti-farmer and a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’, the government changed gears after the humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar in 2015, and sought to project itself as the protector of the poor. Neither side can claim to have succeeded entirely in their aim, but this tussle could play out in the political discourse through 2018.
Other issues include the Babri title dispute, and the Aadhaar case. Both are up for hearing in the Supreme Court early next year, and may be leveraged for poll propaganda.
Finally, there will be claims around leadership. The BJP will continue to underline the qualities it claims for Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi’s acceptability as the leader of any potential coalition of opposition parties remains an open question. Both the BJP and the Congress are likely to continue to concentrate attacks on each other’s leader right through to 2019.
2017: YEAR IN PERSPECTIVE
ELECTIONS were held in two batches — in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Punjab in the first, and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in the second. They brought gains for the BJP and mixed results for the Congress. While the BJP swept to power in UP, it had to fight hard to retain Gujarat in a spirited contest by the Congress. The party wrested Manipur, Uttarakhand and HP from the Congress, and manoeuvred past the Congress in Goa. In an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal, the BJP lost miserably to the Congress in Punjab, where AAP emerged as the second largest party.
DEMONETISATION AND GST disrupted normal economic activity, but the note ban yielded political dividends for the BJP in UP. In Gujarat, GST provoked resentment, but not uniformly enough to threaten the BJP’s hold. The BJP has sought to project demonetisation and GST as anti-black money moves.
THE CONGRESS ended 2017 with changed leadership. New president Rahul Gandhi sent out signals of recalibrating his party’s positioning, even by shedding some long-held beliefs. His visits to temples seemingly contradict the Congress’s traditional secularism. And he attacked GST, mooted when UPA was in power. With his ferocious attacks on the BJP in Gujarat, Rahul indicated an energetic turning of the corner.
REGIONAL PARTIES had a difficult 2017. After 15 years, the BJP blew away the SP and BSP in UP. The RJD-JD(U) alliance in Bihar crumbled, Nitish Kumar defecting to the NDA. It raised questions over electoral alliances formed merely for survival — a concern that will cast a long shadow as the opposition explores ways to take on the BJP.
WHAT TO EXPECT 2018 — TOMORROW: LAW & COURTS