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A forecast for friction: Why 2021 could see a charged up political climate

2020 started and is ending on a stormy note; 2021 may be no different. The government could face protests on the street, and hard-fought Assembly elections could raise political temperatures. Major diplomatic challenges lie ahead. For the Opposition, 2021 could be a make-or-break year.

Written by Ravish Tiwari , Manoj C G | New Delhi | Updated: January 6, 2021 8:36:00 am
2020 started and is ending on a stormy note — and 2021 may be no different. (Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty)

The unprecedented Covid-19 shutdown briefly interrupted political activity, but politics as such did not come to a standstill. In 2020, dissent found a louder voice than had been heard in the recent past, and arguments and clashes of ideology turned more raucous and bitter.

The year began with multitudes on the streets against the divisive CAA and NRC — protests that ended in bloodshed in Delhi. The pandemic took over but the government’s handling of the crisis divided the polity once again. The Chinese aggression triggered heated debate before India entered election mode again. The so-called “love jihad” laws and the tragic incident in Hathras brought forth outrage and anger. And as the year wound down, thousands of people were on the streets again, demanding the withdrawal of the new farm laws.

2020 started and is ending on a stormy note — and 2021 may be no different.

The deadlock over the farmers’ agitation continues — and it remains to be seen whether these protests will put other sectors too in agitation mode against the government’s seemingly high-handed approach towards issues of popular concern. The Budget session of Parliament could witness — and reflect — the social and economic anxieties that had been bottled up under the pandemic curbs.

The Assembly election in West Bengal and other states could bring important indications, and the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine could kick up new controversies. As the year enters its second half, the drumbeat of the battle for Uttar Pradesh in early 2022 will get louder and more frenzied.

Leaderless agitations, powered by mobilisation on the Internet

The BJP-led government’s political and administrative moves — the effective abrogation of Article 370, and the passage of the triple talaq, citizenship amendment, and farm sector laws — as well as the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic has bared the social and economic anxieties of large sections of the population.

The nationwide anti-CAA protests and the ongoing farmers’ agitation at the borders of Delhi, although directed against the central government, have appeared to be crowd-sourced in nature and shape — and have reflected an ambivalence towards established opposition political parties. The palpable leaderlessness of the popular sentiment in both these major recent agitations contrasts with the anti-corruption movement during the UPA 2 regime, which had a clear leadership.

This aspect has, in fact, been in evidence for some time now — in the previous term of the Narendra Modi government, it was reflected in the spontaneous and largely leaderless Dalit protests that broke out in several parts of the country against the Supreme Court’s ruling that diluted the SC/ST prevention of atrocities Act. The government had then responded quickly to defuse the crisis.

Again, the amplification of the #MeToo discourse was the outcome of a largely leaderless popular push that resulted in the resignation of a Union Minister. Where the anti-CAA and farmers’ protests are different though, is in their manifest tenacity and willingness to play the long game.

While the ruling dispensation has sought to blame the Opposition for these protests, the fact that the protests have managed to sustain themselves without core support from the Opposition political parties is significant. The established political institutions — both on the ruling and Opposition sides — will be assessing this new trend, which is likely to not only survive, but thrive with the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile phones across the country.

The similarly leaderless #BlackLivesMatter mobilisation ahead of the presidential election in the United States indicated the global spread of the trend of impromptu mobilisation of communities and groups using mobile phones, to give collective expression to their frustration. As new stresses emerge in post-pandemic society worldwide, more of this is likely to be seen everywhere.

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Task for the BJP: managing the narrative as elections approach

2021 is going to be a crucial year for the BJP-led central government, which had prioritised its core ideological agenda — Article 370, Ram Temple, triple talaq law, and the CAA — over addressing the downward slide of the economy, which had seen multiple quarters of declining growth rate even before the pandemic hit. The distress brought by the pandemic has now pervaded through the economy — and has the potential to overturn the political gains that the ruling dispensation had hoped to make by pushing its ideological agenda. Negotiating the major socio-political challenges — the threat of rising inequality, social tensions such as the farmers’ agitation, the stresses on the federal structure as resource mobilisation becomes a serious issue — aggravated by the pandemic will test the mettle of the BJP government in 2021.

Assembly elections are due in the east (West Bengal and Assam) and south (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry) of the country in the first half of the new year, and each will have a degree of national significance.

West Bengal will be watched in the backdrop of the BJP’s stellar showing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and Assam will test the BJP’s strength and appeal in the Northeast. Tamil Nadu will see its first election without the two towering figures — M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa — who dominated its politics for decades; Kerala will show whether the Congress is able to repeat its Lok Sabha election success, or the Left gets an opportunity to retain a degree of national significance. Kerala will also be a test for the BJP, which had pinned hopes on the Sabarimala temple entry issue, but has not yet seen the dividends it expected.

As 2021 ends, the battle will move to the north and west, as political forces begin to gear up for Assembly elections in UP in early 2022, along with Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur.

For Opposition, especially Cong and Rahul, a time of reckoning

Electoral outcomes in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Bihar since the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 have indicated a certain pushback against the BJP at the provincial level. At the national level, however, the Opposition parties have been found wanting, especially when compared to the popular pushback seen in the anti-CAA students’ protests and the farmers’ agitation. With numbers in Rajya Sabha turning more in favour of the BJP, the focus will remain on the strength and abilities of the Opposition.

The tussle for a rebalancing of power within the Gandhi-family-led Congress will continue. The first push for introspection by a section of senior leaders in August 2019 hasn’t yet played out fully. The party has bought time with the promise of an AICC session in early 2021. The outcome of the churn in the Congress has the potential to shape the course of Opposition politics in 2021. It will decide whether the Congress retains its relevance at the centre of Opposition politics or is overrun by ambitious regional leaders. The shape the convulsions in the Congress take will be inextricably linked to the political fate of Rahul Gandhi.

The electoral outcomes in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu will have an impact on Opposition politics at the national level as well. The scale of victory or defeat of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and MK Stalin’s DMK will determine the role regional forces play in the national Opposition.

Beyond borders: China, the US, and the world in India’s policy

While these elections and the economic crisis will ensure enough tension in domestic politics, 2021 can be a crucial year for the rebalancing of global power equations. The administration of President Joe Biden will have a very different view of the US role in a range of global issues including climate change and international trade. Multiple points of friction in the US-China relationship will impact nations around the world, including India. Handling the military stand-off on the LAC in eastern Ladakh will remain a key focus area for New Delhi in 2021; the way this crisis pans out will define the future of the bilateral relationship. Negotiating this stand-off will need calibrations in India’s foreign policy stance vis a vis the US, Russia ,and the immediate neighbourhood, especially Nepal, as well.

The BJP’s domestic political posturing of muscular nationalism may have a bearing on how India approaches these tricky issues, which have many more moving parts than are within India’s capability to control. The government has in the past used the surgical strikes against terror launch pads inside Pakistan for domestic political leverage; how it handles the LAC stand-off and a belligerent Nepal in this context remains to be seen.

Potential for friction in vaccine, Census; key court cases lined up

The issue that will command significant popular attention and could trigger a political slugfest will be the vaccination drive against Covid-19. With regulatory approval for one or several vaccine candidates expected within days, issues of access and costs will dominate discussions through 2021. Given the way the handling of the migration during the lockdown entered the Bihar Assembly election discourse, the vaccination drive has the potential to trigger intense politicking during the coming clutch of elections.

The Census is another administrative exercise that can trigger political contestation. The storm building up over the NPR exercise that was slated to begin in April 2020 was dissipated by the pandemic, and the exercise stands postponed indefinitely. With the end of the pandemic still nowhere near certain, the issue of the 2021 Census continues to hang in the balance.

The Budget exercise could always fuel discontent; the government will also have to navigate important cases in the Supreme Court, including the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, and the petitions against the CAA and the farm laws.

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