Politics

What to Expect in Indian Politics in 2017

The state elections in 2017 will indicate which way the winds are blowing and will also chart Modi’s rise or fall.

A collage of the main political players we can look forward to in 2017.

A collage of the main political players we can look forward to in 2017. Will Modi and the BJP be able to hold their position?

On November 8, 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to ban the old  Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, intending to root out black money and corruption. Never had a government taken such a radical step to demonetise almost 86% of the currency in circulation. The impact, he knew, would be strong  both on Indian economy and Indian people.

“The 500 and 1000 rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements,” he justified, “will become just worthless pieces of paper.” However, as it turns out after a month and a half, the demonetised notes worthily made their way back into the banking system, thus, defeating the very purpose which the prime minister had so dramatically announced.

‘Did black money turn legitimate’ was the constantly hovering question every economist of repute wondered about. While the Reserve Bank of India has failed to offer a convincing answer until now, the government has conveniently turned the rhetoric of eradicating black money upside down. It now sees demonetisation as the first step taken towards a futuristic digital business era.

Modi’s immense popularity and his direct talking had a majority of the Indian people swaying towards his side in the 2014 parliamentary election. This also gave him the political strength to take radical steps like demonetisation, which did not unnerve his establishment despite throwing up innumerable tales of people’s sufferings. Modi remained stoic even as the opposition’s clamor grew against him towards the end of 2016.

Possibilities in 2017

The serpentine queues at the banks and ATMs may have ended and people may have gotten used to less cash in their pockets but the note ban will continue to remain the primary topic of political discussion in 2017 – at least in the first half of the year when its impact on Indian economy be weighed and scrutinised. And this, perhaps, will also dictate how the Indian political landscape shapes up this year.

The Congress party and the Aam Aadmi Party have already started to question the motives of the BJP-led union government. Both the Congress scion, Rahul Gandhi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal have alleged that note ban – which flushed banks with unprecedented deposits – was done to help out big corporates which are reeling under heavy debts. The State Bank of India’s almost simultaneous decision to ‘write off’ Rs 7,016 crore which was loaned to 63 big corporate accounts not only explained the government’s intention but also showed a huge gap between its words and actions, they alleged.

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While Kejriwal has gone all guns blazing against Modi, Gandhi adduced the Sahara-Birla diaries – which allegedly lists Modi as one of the many beneficiaries of commissions amounting to nearly Rs 70 crores – in his recent speeches to attack Modi’s demonetisation.

Gareebon se kheencho, ammeron ko seencho (take from the poor and give to the rich),” he said at every outlet, alleging that note ban was nothing but ‘economic robbery.’

With most other opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress, Left parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party upping their ante against demonetisation, it looks quite possible that the political rhetoric in the country would revolve around the monetary reform, its impact, and its intentions, through the first few months of 2017.

Will it affect the outcome of upcoming assembly elections?

At the moment, no one can speculate.

Two factors, however, have to be kept in mind. Firstly, Modi’s supporters are firmly behind him in support of the move. They vehemently project him as an honest, incorruptible leader, someone who, unlike the Congress, is capable of taking prompt decisions. Amidst a divided opposition, they have managed to sail his ship through muddy waters.

Secondly, opposition against the NDA government is bound to grow as it will enter its third year in 2017. Hence, it will be a year when people will be better placed to judge the government and vote with larger objectivity. As the floating population will grow, the opposition parties may reap its dividends.

The outcome of elections would largely depend on which one of these trends reflect more powerfully in the political battleground.

Seven states of India are going to polls in 2017 – five of them in the first half of the year. While the biggest election would be the much-awaited Uttar Pradesh polls on which most political observers are keeping a keen eye, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur will elect new governments too. Towards the latter half of 2017, BJP’s prestige state Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will be witness to keen electoral battles.

Barring Punjab where the BJP is a junior partner to Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and Uttar Pradesh, the most politically significant state, all the other five will see a direct confrontation between the Congress and the BJP as regional parties do not have much of a hold in them.

A man sits wearing a Narendra Modi mask before an event. Credit: Reuters/Files

A man sits wearing a Narendra Modi mask before an event. Credit: Reuters/Files

Where the BJP can score?

The polls in Uttar Pradesh are generally a four-cornered fight with the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party, the BJP and the Congress in the fray. In 2012, the SP won with a comfortable majority with merely 29% votes in its favour. Therefore, each party’s will focus on consolidating caste and community equations more than advancing developmental issues.

The BJP has put all its energy into winning UP, the biggest state in India with 403 assembly seats. It has played its Hindutva card to polarise the voters on religious lines and complimented this communal tactic with efforts to forge an alternative OBC-Dalit-upper caste alliance.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav with his uncle and Samajwadi Party leaders Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Yadav. Credit: PTI/Files

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav with his uncle and Samajwadi Party leaders Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Yadav. Credit: PTI/Files

Given that the SP has until now commanded the substantial Yadav-Muslim population and BSP has the support of Dalits (almost 22% in UP), BJP’s efforts to create a new caste front will be keenly watched. With the turmoil in the SP and the Congress’ failing attempts to consolidate a vote bank in UP, the poll may be a straight battle between BJP and BSP, unless a larger pre-electoral alliance disrupts the existing political equations.

Manipur and Gujarat will be the second-most watched states in 2017. Both states are going to polls at different times of the year. Manipur is strategically important for the BJP after its victory in Assam. Its ‘look-east’ policy in the north-east has paid rich dividends to the party. Its tactical silence over the contentious inner-line permit issue because of which Manipur kept going up in flames through the last year indicates that BJP is keeping its cards very close to its chest. Until now, it has only occupied itself with poaching important leaders from the Congress and building a political consensus for the party among multifarious identity groups.

Gujarat, however, will be the biggest test for the saffron party. The state saw the resignation of Anandiben Patel as the chief minister, a Dalit upsurge against the Sangh Parivar’s cow-protection campaign and the Patel agitation over the last two years. The party is said to have lost considerable ground in the state where Modi ruled for three straight terms. Both Congress and the AAP are trying to fill the political vacuum after Modi.

Since it has always been a prestige state for the party – the Gujarat model of economic development was the USP of Modi’s campaign in 2014 – it will be politically contingent for the BJP to win it back. This will cement its place as the most powerful party in India.

In Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the party would like to wrest control from the Congress, which is already facing several corruption charges in both the states.

But in Goa, both the Congress and a fledgling AAP hope to do exactly the same from the Laxmikant Parsekar-led BJP government, which too has entangled itself in charges of corruption and weak governance.

Where will the Congress stand?

BJP is the biggest party in terms of control of states, while its national rival, Congress still commands the greatest number of votes polled in all states. However, while the saffron party is on a definite upswing, the latter will have to do something really drastic to re-energise itself to stem its continuing decline.

As of now, the Gandhi scion, the only acceptable leader in the party, is trying to re-invent himself. If his last few speeches are something to go by, he has been unabashed in his criticism of the Modi government. His speeches reminds one of the Congress party in the 1960s and 1970s – welfare oriented, uncompromisingly secular-nationalist and sternly pro-poor.

Rahul Gandhi's recent speeches reminds one of the Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. Credit: Reuters/Files

Rahul Gandhi’s recent speeches reminds one of the Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. Credit: Reuters/Files

Rahul Gandhi has launched an attack on big names of corporate world and have not spared leaders from his own party. His has quite consciously been trying to shift the party’s direction from being a market-friendly force towards a social democratic one, Congress’ insiders say.

Gandhi has been reading that script lately.

However, in most states that will go to polls, it can’t boast of even one credible mass leader in any of the seven states. The dearth of regional leaderships may hurt the Congress’ poll prospects, however hard it may try.

In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh is fighting his last election but AAP is more than a roadblock to his chief ministerial ambitions. Similarly, Ibobi Singh, the three-time Congress’ chief minister of Manipur, will fight its most crucial elections as an anti-incumbency factor against his government is at an all-time high. Himachal Pradesh’s chief minister Virbhadra Singh, too, is battling several charges of corruption.

As Gandhi is trying to re-energise the party with negligible support from its rank and file – and with patronage and corruption entrenched in regional units – it will be a herculean task for the grand-old party to rise beyond expectations. But it will still be interesting to watch what happens within the Congress and what strategies it adopts to oppose the Modi government.

The surprise element

One party that could surprise both its detractors and supporters is the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party. It has been trying to consolidate voters in Punjab, Gujarat and Goa ever since it won Delhi.

Political observers say that it stands a real chance of capturing power in Punjab, where it has led a powerful campaign against the Badals. Agrarian distress, the massive drug trade in the state and corruption are three issues on which AAP laid its foundation stone in Punjab. All three are emotional issues in the state and as a result it has built a considerable mass base.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), shouts slogans after taking the oath as the new chief minister of Delhi during a swearing-in ceremony at Ramlila ground in New Delhi February 14, 2015. Credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Files

Arvind Kejriwal, chief of Aam Aadmi Party shouts slogans after taking the oath as the new chief minister of Delhi during a swearing-in ceremony at Ramlila ground in New Delhi February 14, 2015. Credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/Files

Similarly, it has consistently worked in Goa over the last two years and built a strong organisation in the coastal state. It has highlighted corruption in mining activities and the real estate sector and at the same time built its base among the underprivileged sections like fishermen, small traders and landless labourers.

The party has reasons to be hopeful in 2017. If it wins even one of these states, Kejriwal is most likely to become the most vocal opposition leader in the days to come.

But the real challenge for him would be to first stop dissensions, which have surfaced quite frequently, within the party and then to develop a second line of leadership if it is serious about his party’s expansion plans.

2017 – Modi’s biggest test

The elections in 2017 will indicate which way the winds are blowing and will also chart Modi’s rise or fall. Although state politics are largely governed by caste and community equations and the political campaigns are centred around state-level issues, Modi – given his charismatic appeal – has been a propelling figure in BJP campaigns until now. He is undoubtedly the most popular mass leader India has had in its recent history.

The Sangh Parivar machinery has managed to turn him into a political star – someone to be infatuated with, someone whose achievements have to be celebrated opulently and also someone whose mistakes can be forgiven.

It is this stardom that will be put to test in 2017.