For India, one of the most divisive years just ended on a high note for secularists, headed by Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party. 2018 was polarising in terms of politics, gender, and religion. Of these, the most divisive will continue to be political. The general elections in the summer of 2019 are likely to be a riot of an exercise.
The Hindu right, which Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, represents, found itself on the defensive on all these counts, underlined by the state assembly election results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh last fortnight. If those verdicts are anything to go by, the people are looking for a tolerant and accommodating government that spends more political and management time on making life easier for the voter.
But from what transpired last week, with the Lok Sabha (Lower House) passing the bill that makes triple talaq (pronounced by the husband for an instant divorce, under the provisions of Sharia) a punishable offence, this is not a likely eventuality. The bill has to be passed by the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) to become law. This looks difficult as the Rajya Sabha is dominated by the Congress-led Opposition, which wants the bill referred to a joint parliamentary committee in its push to water down the punitive sections of the bill. The Triple Talaq bill is an indication of the kind of political and cultural war facing India in 2019.
There are close to 15 million Muslims in India. They are the second-largest minority in the country, the first being Christians.
But as a demographic segment, the Muslim question preoccupies a disproportionate space thanks to historical circumstances. And, contrary to earlier times, Muslim leaders like the highly articulate Asaduddin Owaisi, who is the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, and a three-time Member of Parliament, are aggressive in demanding their rights.
The Congress party is aware of this turn in the story. The 20-odd parties that it will enter into a loose partnership with it for the 2019 general elections will toe a soft line with regard to minorities.
In the general scheme of things, this should make for a more peaceful environment. But this is not likely. The reason for this is that the BJP — which was in a hurry to pass the bill in the Lok Sabha and did so to take credit for striking a blow in favour of the Uniform Civil Code, a set of provisions to replace personal law based on scriptures — has to be seen by their Hindutva ranks playing hardball.
The summer of 2019 will witness therefore a hardening of positions, with the BJP letting go of secular pretences and going in for the kill, failing which their traditional support bases will be further depleted.
The gloves coming off political hands is one thing. Once the results come in, and no matter who wins, at least for the duration of 2019, the government in power will be toeing a soft line. The signs are all staring one in the face. Newly elected Congress chief ministers have all waived farmers’ loans, a perennial financial nightmare. Following the cue, Modi is stepping up his efforts to waive more loans: recent protests by farmers have taken a toll on the BJP’s popularity, and not just because of the loan issue.
Indian politicians tend to portray the Indian farmer as a man feeding the country. Over 60 per cent of the Indian economy is still agrarian and the farming community has a strong grip, which in political parlance means votes.
So, no matter which government comes to power in the new year, farmers will benefit. That bodes well for other interest groups.
In short, India will see a slew of populist measures. Gas and petrol will cost less. Tax on smartphones will be cut. Cigarettes will cost more. Both the BJP and the opposition will toss financial prudence to the wind. To a cash-strapped economy waiting for the right kind of encouragement to take off, it is going to be a tough year.
Gift-giving with a vengeance
On the financial and budget fronts, 2019 will be vengefully populist. To be kind and good, and to be generous with the goodies will be the norm. Be it Congress or the BJP that comes power, Gandhi or Modi will be heading a team of Santa Clauses. Expect gifts round the year, until it all comes crashing down and reality reasserts its iron grip.
On the political front, India will be further polarised, with the BJP returning to its core (Ayodhya) temple advocates. The party has little choice in the matter anyway if they want to stay relevant. The real question that the BJP will face in 2019 is whether that party will continue to be led by Modi. If not Modi, who? The ultra nationalist parent organisation RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) will decide. As of now though there are no other serious contenders for the top slot. Even if Modi continues as the face of the BJP, he will be forced to pander to the hard line set by the RSS.
Gandhi, in case he wins the general elections, will have a difficult time trying to please all. He has presented himself as a reasonable man. And reasonable men have an unreasonably tough time as everyone looks to have a fair deal from them. Gandhi will go pop with a vengeance.
All in all, we have on the cards a populist and even more polarised year ahead. Soft and hard. A schizophrenic year. Keep your pills at hand.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.