2018 may unfold a politics of performance over identity, of hope over fear in India
Gazing into a crystal ball is never easy, especially since these days the image tends to get cloudy rather unexpectedly. After all, at this time last year, who would have been taken seriously if he predicted that the big political story of 2017 would be the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as the strongest and most credible national opposition leader? Yet that is unarguably the case today. So as 2018 dawns, one is conscious of taking a gamble in predicting next year’s trends from this year’s information. Still, these are the major trends I see emerging in Indian politics in the New Year:
He has just become the President of the Indian National Congress in December. In the course of 2018 we can expect him to consolidate his leadership in the party, appoint key aides to crucial positions and transform the working of the organisation through innovations and new initiatives. By the middle of the year the Indian National Congress is bound to bear his stamp in ways that will be visibly different from the past.
The Opposition, freshly revived after Rahul Gandhi’s performance as leader of the Gujarat campaign against the deeply-entrenched BJP, will start to come together in the course of 2018. Mathematics dictates the political logic: the BJP won an overwhelming majority in 2014 with just 31 per cent of the popular vote, and the UP elections in 2017 again confirmed that the ruling party’s biggest electoral asset is the disunity of the Opposition. (Had Mayawati joined the Samajwadi-Congress combine, the BJP would have been routed in a majority of the seats in UP; instead her 20 per cent support base was wasted, since it essentially took anti-BJP votes away from the Opposition and guaranteed a resounding BJP victory.) Still, even if the logic is obvious, it is not irresistible: very often, for many Opposition parties, their differences with other Opposition parties are more important to them than the shared interest of rallying together to oust the BJP. The BJP itself will do its utmost to exploit Opposition divisions, as it successfully did in Bihar. The success or otherwise of attempts to build an Opposition mahagathbandhan in 2018 could determine the outcome of the next general elections.
The major global issues — Trump’s erratic Presidency, China’s emergence as a superpower, the speedy construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Russia’s rapprochement with China and therefore warming towards Pakistan, the apparent victory over ISIS in the Middle East, and nuclear tensions with North Korea — have had no significant impact on our domestic politics and are unlikely to do so in 2018 either. Indian politics are more insular than most, and this trend is likely to continue. Only two possible international developments could shake up our politics significantly — an explosion in the Gulf countries that sends millions of our workers home into an economy that cannot absorb them, with a simultaneous loss of their valuable remittances; and a major conflict with Pakistan, with whom our relations at their lowest ebb in recent memory. The first is out of our control; the second can only be prevented by statesmanship, which sometimes seems in short supply in New Delhi. A dramatic surge in petrol prices would also affect voters, but there seems little risk of that in the foreseeable future.
This has already become apparent in 2017, with even Rahul Gandhi, who had previously kept his distance from social media, tweeting frequently and wittily. Social media has already become the favoured tool of politicians to get their messages out — it’s much easier to issue a tweet or a Facebook post than to call a press conference. With affordable 4G and a profusion of smart phones in the hands of Indian voters, one can be sure that Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp will be the means of choice for political campaigners — not at the expense of traditional means such as rallies, paryatanams and “squad visits” to voters’ homes, but as an equally indispensable arrow in the same quiver.
The BJP’s politics of polarisation and the regional parties’ emphasis on casteism and regionalism have made Indian democracy the preserve of identity politics, but I see these practices coming up against their limits in the near future. “Hindu polarisation” has been repeatedly useful for the BJP, but as the Gujarat polls have proved, it is not enough: a new Ram Janmabhoomi temple is not going to fill the stomachs of the unemployed. Nor will Telugu pride make multiple-rate GST any easier to implement, nor OBC dominance promote increased manufacturing, nor the abolition of triple-talaq lower the price of cooking-gas cylinders. The fact is that it is these economic issues, much more than identity, that voters will increasingly cast their ballots on: they may feel passionate about caste or religion, but economics hits them where it hurts, in the wallet. In the increasing realisation of this by our voters lies the hope that 2018 may witness a decisive shift in India towards a politics of performance rather than of identity, of hope rather than fear, and of aspiration rather than conflict.