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Big Story: 19 for ‘19
As we prepare to lay 2019 to rest over the next few days and brace ourselves for a 2020 that will undoubtedly be more tumultuous, I wondered what might be the best way of looking back at the year.
The Political Fix is now a little over six months old – nine if you count the Election Fix, which preceded it. And in that time we’ve covered a massive amount of ground, from parochial policies in Andhra Pradesh to Narendra Modi’s escapades in Texas, with Nithya Subramanian’s amazing illustrations underlining all of it.
Although year-end listicles may be cliched, they do offer one advantage: variety. For a country as complex as India, you may be able to encapsulate a whole year through the lens of one topic (hint: the Bharatiya Janata Party) but there is much more going on that is worth mentioning.
And so, at the very end of 2019, instead of your regular set of analysis, headlines and op-eds, here are 19 things we learned about Indian politics in 2019.
- BJP’s massive re-election victory
Maybe the biggest thing 2019 told us was actually about 2014. Five years ago, prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and his BJP notched up a huge victory, earning the first Lok Sabha majority in 30 years. But it was unclear if that was a one-off, a combination of economic concerns, an anti-corruption movement and anger at the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections laid all those questions to rest. Modi and the BJP won an even bigger victory, solidifying their hold on North India and expanding into other regions, most notably the East. The BJP has solidly become the pole around which all Indian politics operates.
May: What did we get wrong (and right) about the 2019 Lok Sabha polls?
- At the state-level, BJP has cause for concern
Despite its massive Lok Sabha win, this is the BJP’s record in state elections since 2017.
Huge win in UP
Close win in Gujarat
Single-largest in Karnataka, has to poach MLAs
Loses in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, MP
Dented in Haryana, loses power in Maharashtra
Loses in Jharkhand
So even though the BJP has become the hegemon, its dominance is not even close to complete and, indeed, because of a combination of factors, it is actually losing ground at the regional level. And with party president (and Union Home Minister) Amit Shah set to hand over all his responsibilities to JP Nadda, the organisation might be in for some relatively challenging times.
October: Are the middling state election results a mere stumbling block for the BJP?
- Amit Shah’s year
While we can observe how the BJP is operating when it is up against others, few have a good understanding of the dynamic within the party. In particularly, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah relationship – easily the most important political combination of the decade – is little understood.
So it was interesting to see that, while the first term was solidly Modi’s, the second time around the election victory and government that ensued was described as belonging to Modi-Shah. As Home Minister, Shah also got take political ownership of the year’s biggest policy moves, from triple talaq to the gutting of Article 370 to the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Was this just a splitting of duties? A succession plan? A revelation about who was actually pulling the strings? And also, what was that exceedingly odd press conference?
August: With Kashmir victory, is Amit Shah grabbing the spotlight from Modi?
- Hindutva’s year – until the Citizenship Act
Triple talaq criminalisation, done. Article 370, removed. Ram Mandir, decks cleared. Citizenship Act, passed. Despite the economic downturn, the government focused all of its political energies on core BJP Hindu nationalist demands – and initially seemed to achieve them with remarkable ease.
Sure, the Ram Mandir outcome can technically be placed at the feet of the Supreme Court, but the BJP will derive all political mileage from it. Article 370 was removed with less friction than expected, though the Supreme Court still has to look into the legality of the action, never mind the trampling of civil liberties that were involved.
As the Citizenship Act amendments passed, the focus started to move ahead to the next policy effort, maybe a Uniform Civil Code? That is, until it became clear that Indians may not be entirely on board with all of the Hindutva policies.
November: Article 370 gone and Ram Temple on the way: What does Modi’s New India look like?
- The first big (non-farmer) protests
The Citizenship Act has faced pushback for several years now from the North East, where it has provoked fears about demographic change. But Amit Shah’s constant invocation of the Act along with a National Register of Citizens made it evident that the BJP was seeking to use the policy as a way of downgrading the status of Indian Muslims.
This inspired protests, first at minority institutions Muslim like Aligarh Muslim University, and then, as a result of police brutality against students, at universities around the country. That soon turned into a large-scale protest movement against the Citizenship Act and the Hindu nationalist agenda of the government that is still ongoing. Although it remains unclear where the nation-wide protests will go, they represent the first major outpouring of public anger against Modi (if you don’t count farmer protests).
A key aspect of the movement: While the political Opposition has jumped on-board, it is by no means in the driving seat.
December: The BJP’s sneaky electoral tactic that led to massive week-long protests in India
- Rahul Gandhi’s and a Congress crisis
Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi pitched himself as an alternative to Modi and the BJP in the Lok Sabha election campaign. This was a failure, as the Congress’ woeful numbers proved. Rahul Gandhi himself lost what was until then the “pocket borough” of Amethi, though he remained in Parliament, having also contested from Wayanad in Kerala. So Gandhi resigned, leaving the party free to pick new leadership and move forward.
More than half a year later, the party is still being run by Gandhi’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, and there remain murmurs that Rahul will return. In other words, there is still no sense that the Congress has figured out what went wrong in May (though its NYAY income support promise did spark interesting debates) or knows how to move forward, despite the fact that the party has been notching up victories at the state level.
And a rudderless Congress at the Centre means no strong force that can help anchor the entire political Opposition.
July: Does a leaderless Congress have any way to stop a marauding BJP?
- Economic woes and a battered global image
The Modi government tried hard, though the end of its first term, not to acknowledge any problems in the Indian economy. It insisted that all was well and that India was a bright spot in a dimming world. After coming to power, however, the pretence had to be dropped (though BJP leaders would continue to insist that nothing has gone wrong).
The Indian economy is facing a massive structural crisis that could keep the country stuck in a low-growth set-up for years forward just as it needs to expand to make space for the burgeoning youth class. Economic disappointment brings with it a reduced stature on the global stage, something that might become even more of a challenge as Indian diplomats struggle to explain the crushing of civil liberties that has come with the Article 370 and Citizenship Act moves.
November: Does the Modi government really expect foreign press to toe the Indian line?
- The Maharashtra realignment
This wasn’t just a Lok Sabha election year. State elections also threw up interesting results, with maybe the most fascinating coming from Maharashtra. At first the outcome of assembly elections seemed straightforward: the BJP along with age-old (but restive) ally Shiv Sena won a second term, albeit with smaller numbers than before.
But the Sena was unhappy with not being equal space in government and so decided to look elsewhere. The result was a month of drama as the Sena opened talks with the Nationalist Congress Party-Congress alliance, only to see the BJP form government. That arrangement, however, lasted days only to fall apart and eventually see the Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray become chief minister of an extremely unlikely grouping. Where this alliance goes (and whether it lasts) might be the one the most interesting questions of the coming year. Politician to keep an eye on at the centre of this: the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar.
November: BJP’s gambit failed – but how long will unwieldy Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance last?
- Jagan’s big win
Former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu split off from the BJP last year in an attempt to create a narrative that might help him stave off the anti-incumbency that seemed to be bubbling in his state. It didn’t work.
The YSR Congress’ Jagan Reddy pulled off a massive victory at both the state and Lok Sabha level, giving him complete control of the state, including the freedom to dismantle much of what Naidu had done. One of Reddy’s first moves was to push for a more parochial employment policy, one that has been echoed in other state capitals. Although Andhra Pradesh has remained somewhat quieter since – with neighbour Telangana occasionally making more noise – his efforts to remake the state will be keenly watched by investors and rivals.
July: Will Andhra’s 75% jobs-for-locals quota set off a wave of parochial politics?
- Naveen Patnaik’s fifth term
Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik entered that rare club of Indian politicians who have been elected to the chief minister seat five times. Odisha was expected to be one of those states where the BJP would make a big entrance in 2019. While the saffron party did pick up seats at the Lok Sabha level, Patnaik maintained his stranglehold on the assembly.
How long that will last remains a point of contention. There have been murmurs about Patnaik’s health for years now and the BJD – at least from the outside – does not seem to have much of a second-rung leadership that might be able to take over in his absence.
- Other election results
Here are the other results that were significant this year:
Jharkhand flipped from BJP to Congress, confirming that Lok Sabha vs state polls trend that we mentioned above.
Pawan Chamling of the Sikkim Democratic Front, another five-time chief minister, actually lost power in Sikkim.
The Jannayak Janta Party’s Dushyant Chautala won enough seats in Haryana to force the incumbent BJP into giving him the deputy chief minister spot so they could stay in power.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam may have won big in the Lok Sabha elections, but it was not able to win enough assembly bye-polls to bring down the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in the state.
- A Karnataka coup
The Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government was always a shaky, unlikely arrangement in Karnataka, formed despite the BJP winning the most seats in the assembly elections in 2018. Many believed it would only last until the Lok Sabha elections and, indeed, not long after, the BJP managed to poach enough politicians from the other side to depose the alliance and re-install BS Yeddyurappa as chief minister.
Voters later even gave their stamp of approval, endorsing many of the turncoat politicians in bye-elections held recently. This means that the BJP maintains its foothold in South India, while the Opposition will have to start afresh.
- What happens in Jammu & Kashmir?
The trampling of civil liberties and unilateral change made to the status of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union also has the potential to entirely reshape how politics works in the former state now downgraded to a Union Territory. We just don’t know what shape that will take.
Nearly half a year after the BJP’s big move, the state still remains partially under lockdown, with political activity in particular completely out of the question. The BJP has hoped to use this time to create a new political mainstream, yet until people are permitted to take to the streets and express their opinions, we will not know where things go next.
- The BJP’s frontier: West Bengal
Mamata Banerjee may have worked hard to usher in the end of the 32-year Communist rule of West Bengal, but her own position in the state is now being threatened by the BJP. The saffron party won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, a huge victory since it had barely been competitive in a handful of seats prior to this election. And in many ways, the BJP has decided that this is the zone for it to make its strongest push, especially with the imminent retirement of Naveen Patnaik in neighbouring Odisha as we mentioned above.
The BJP has pulled out all the stops, most particularly on the Hindutva plank, in its effort to unseat Mamata Banerjee and indeed you can see the entire Citizenship Act move as part of its strategy in the state, though the fallout is now unclear. Banerjee has leaned heavily on a more Bengali identity as a way of pushing back. With elections around the corner in 2021, this will be the most-watched political struggle over the coming year.
- Yogi vs who in UP?
While the Citizenship Act protests may be denting the image of the BJP elsewhere and around the world, in Uttar Pradesh it might end up benefiting the saffron party with political dividends. Chief Minister Adityanath, a riot-accused religious leader, has taken the opportunity to drive home his anti-Muslim agenda, utilising the police force as a way of beating down the minority community and polarising the polity.
With decks cleared for the building of a Ram Temple in the state as well, Uttar Pradesh will be the clearest expression of the BJP’s Hindutva worldview. Can anyone challenge that? A Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance failed to do so in Lok Sabha polls, and the Congress remains a bit player, despite the entry of Priyanka Gandhi. The elections are in 2022, which means any groundwork and narrative building will have to start soon.
- Dalits, Muslims and women
The Citizenship Act protests have offered the unlikely sight of large-scale mobilisation that is expressly aimed at countering anti-Muslims thinking from the BJP. In a country where it is generally believed that Muslims assertion will backfire, this is an interesting development – one underlined by Asaduddin Owaisi, of the AIMIM, whose clout has only grown.
And while the Bahujan Samaj Party, the only Dalit-led political party to have run a state government, may currently be facing oblivion in Uttar Pradesh, the year held out hope for anti-caste movements as well, in particular the dent made by the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in Maharashtra.
At the national level, at least, there weren’t major shifts when it comes to gender in Indian politics. Though more women than ever before voted, and representation has gone up, the numbers are still miniscule. Moreover, India now has only one woman chief minister: Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. And the Women’s Reservation Bill is nowhere to be seen.
April: Muslims are constantly discussed but seriously underrepresented in Indian politics
- Federal fears
A second term for Modi and the massive presence of the BJP around the country has deepened the federal faultlines in the country. The economic downturn in particular has meant less to go around, and the Centre has responded by trying to grab more for itself: It pushed the Reserve Bank of India to give it a larger dividend, pushed the Finance Commission to allocate more funds to the central government and even withheld compensation legally due to the states until they began complaining and even threatened to go to court. Oh and don’t forget, it unilaterally bifurcated a state – Jammu and Kashmir – and downgraded the new entities from states into union territories, controlled by Delhi.
With questions about delimitation – the redrawing of constituency maps as well as the expansion in number of seats – up ahead, don’t expect federal concerns to go anywhere.
- Supreme Court at the Centre
You cannot talk about the year in Indian politics without bringing up the Supreme Court. Though many will argue that it was a disappointing year for the court, which failed to resolve the internal issues brought to the public in 2018 and continued to dilly dally on crucial questions, it remains a key arena of contestation for Indian politics – not least because the BJP has repeatedly resorted to legally questionable tactics.
Still, maybe the most important takeaway for Opposition politicians over the year may be that the Supreme Court will not act as their saviour. The Ram Mandir decision and the court’s unwillingness to quickly jump into important questions of democracy are a reminder that at the end of the day, the judiciary is not immune from the political forces sweeping across the country.
- Electoral bonds
Of all the questions the court has failed to engage with, maybe the one with the biggest potential political implication is the legality of electoral bonds. These instruments, introduced over just the last year and a half, have already seemingly reshaped political funding, allowing the BJP in particular to draw in massive amounts of opaque cash even as it argued that citizens have no right to know where the money is coming from.
A series of reports towards the end of the year confirmed what was known all along: That the process itself was plagued with legal infirmities, yet pushed through by the BJP in the face of opposition from the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India, the two institutions that ought to have the biggest say in the matter.
Electoral bonds have quickly become a big part of Indian politics, yet one that we still know little about. The Supreme Court, however, is seized of the matter. Will 2020 bring a little more transparency?
That’s all from the Political Fix for 2019. Do write in to [email protected] telling us what you expect from Indian politics in 2020 and also what you would like to see from the Political Fix next year.
Thanks for reading, and have a Happy New Year.