As an eventful 2018 makes way for 2019, the first three months of the new year are expected to be as action-packed as the last three months of this year — starting with Supreme Court’s hearing of the Ram temple dispute followed by the Modi government’s last Budget in February and culminating with the Lok Sabha elections in March-April, which will shape the political discourse for the next five years.
In fact, the tone has already been set for the high-voltage “mother of all electoral battles”, with the results in Assembly elections to the three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh showing that what was once thought to be a cakewalk for the BJP is turning out to be a contest in the face of a resurgent Congress and regional satraps.
Allies proving to be headache for BJP
Traditional BJP allies have voiced concerns about the party not respecting ties and playing the role of a ‘big brother’, with two of its partners – Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP in Andhra Pradesh and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP in Bihar already severing relations with the NDA. BJP’s oldest ally Shiv Sena too has announced that it would contest the 2019 elections alone. These ruptures are bound to complicate the BJP’s electoral arithmetic in 2019.
Despite consolidating its position as the core of any opposition alliance, Congress still falls short of calling the shots all by itself. The Opposition’s dilemma and delay in firming up alliances has led to the BJP calling it an “illusion”, a ‘dream that never be fulfilled’. In some states, local antagonism among parties is bound to cause hurdles in forming a grand alliance of anti-BJP parties despite broad ideological congruence. Such cases in point are that of the AAP and the Congress in Delhi, the Left and the Congress in Kerala and the Left, Trinamool Congress and Congress in West Bengal.
Budget holds key in face of economic slowdown
But it is not only allies the BJP must worry about retaining as many voters who were swayed by Modi’s promise of ushering in ‘acche din’ by streamlining the economy have also grown restive. BJP strategists once believed that economic renewal would be the hallmark of the 2019 campaign but economic growth remains well below the country’s potential, with GDP growth slowing down to 7.1 per cent in the 2018 second quarter as compared to 8.2 per cent in the first quarter. This is the slowest pace of growth as compared to the last three quarters.
The slowdown in economy will also spill over in 2019 and ratings firm Moody’s has predicted that the economic growth is expected to moderate to 7.3 per cent in 2019. However, the recent drop in inflation and oil prices and the rupee’s recovery against dollar will give the government some solace in a year it will present its last Budget.
The Budget, to be presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on February 1, will be crucial for the government, offering it one last opportunity to announce some popular measures. Jaitley is likely to announce a slew of sops to woo rural voters and urban middle class through tax measures.
Will welfare schemes bode well for BJP?
The BJP will also bet that its flagship welfare schemes might insulate it against the patchy economic record, compounded by demonetisation and the sweeping Goods and Services Tax (GST), which have hurt short-term growth. With Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ jibe hitting a nerve, Modi has doggedly tried to paper over the party’s ‘pro-poor’ image by doubling down on welfare schemes such as Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and a staggering health insurance plan for 500 million people.
Despite these efforts, rural India, especially the farming community, continues to be crippled by economic travails. The rural shift towards the BJP in 2014 is showing signs of swinging back to the Congress. Notwithstanding Modi’s promises of doubling agrarian incomes by 2022, agriculture remains in a state of despair and Congress’ promise of a loan waiver if voted back to power has made the PM’s job of wooing this influential community all the more difficult.
Placating farmers a major challenge
A clear warning shot was fired in December 2017’s Gujarat elections, where Congress performed better than BJP in rural areas, especially Saurashtra, giving the saffron party a scare in its bastion. Then in March 2018, as many as 50,000 farmers descended on Mumbai to demand remuneration in crop prices and the community has since held five major rallies in the capital.
The results of the recent assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have only heightened the urgency to placate the farming community. In the three heartland states, the incumbent BJP managed to win just 35 per cent of the 436 assembly seats in rural areas, while the Congress won 55 per cent of the seats. The similarities with 2004, where another confident BJP-led government lost power in the face of a rural backlash owing to the backfiring of its ‘India Shining’ campaign are hard to miss.
“There has always been agrarian distress in the country. However, it never got an occasion to become a pivotal factor in the elections. The BJP’s defeat in the Assembly polls, coupled with the newly-achieved unity among farmers, has ensured that farm distress would take a centre stage in 2019 elections,” said Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India.
Will Ram temple issue come to BJP’s rescue?
With its economic and governance record finding little resonance with the public, the BJP needs some new issues to wrest the initiative back. The Supreme Court will resume hearing in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute in January.
While BJP chief Amit Shah has himself denied to taking the ordinance route despite growing calls from the RSS and VHP, the saffron party is likely to keep this issue afloat until the 2019 elections as it will provide an opportunity to attack the Congress, which of late has espoused a soft Hindutva approach.