Monday, Jan 22, 2018 | Last Update : 05:54 AM IST
Modi and Jaitley continue to doggedly defend the non-existent virtues of the measure.
2018 may have its own surprises, unforeseen and uncharacteristic. But it will mark the final lap of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA-2 government. This will be the year-long preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Opposition too would be getting into the poll act. Like it or not, 2018 will be filled with talks of 2019 as far as national politics is considered.
There is speculation that finance minister Arun Jaitley will have no option but to present a populist Union Budget on February 1 because this is the last full-fledged Budget of this government. The 2019 Budget will have to be a vote-on-account one. It would be futile to talk about the exact measures that Mr Jaitley will announce in the form of freebies and takeaways. But it cannot be a workmanlike Budget of the last four years.
But if looked at closely, Mr Modi did not use the Budget to announce the big decisions. He chose to make the dramatic announcement of the drastic demonetisation measure on the television instead of allowing the finance minister or governor of the Reserve Bank of India to do it.
Mr Modi and Mr Jaitley continue to doggedly defend the non-existent virtues of the measure. They cannot afford to concede the error, especially now. So, if there are going to be any dramatic pre-poll economic measures, Mr Modi would want to make it himself on television sometime in the later part of the year. The 2018 Budget will continue to be the soporific act that it has been in these four years.
There is also the expectation that he would want to push through the idea of simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. There is no doubt that the BJP leaders strongly feel that simultaneous elections would somehow be advantageous to the party, and that their propaganda blitzkrieg perfected by the Prime Minister and party president Amit Shah would ensure a single party rule at the Centre and in states, and that they would enjoy the glory as did the Congress from 1952 to 1967, excepting Kerala. This looks more like a grand dream if not a grand delusion, and there are too many political and logistical hurdles on the way. For example, would the BJP want to fight the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2019 so soon after the 2017 scare?
The 2018 election calendar is quite a hectic one, with elections due in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura in last week of February or the first week of March. Then in the summer, there will be elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. It would be tempting to argue that these state Assembly elections would be precursors to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll outcome. These state elections will be fought on local issues. It looks like that the BJP might lose Rajasthan. There is a lot of discontent in the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. It looks like that Madhya Pradesh wants a change, but the issue is whether the Congress is in a position to provide it. All is quiet on the Chhattisgarh front with chief minister Raman Singh continuing to rule the roost. But this could be a deceptive stillness.
Karnataka looks like a tough one for the BJP as well as for the Congress, and it is going to witness a nasty campaign. Union minister for skill development and entrepreneurship Anant Kumar Hegde has provided a curtain-raiser of sorts — the kind of vitriol that will be unleashed during the campaign. Unlike in the other states, the BJP will try to polarise the electorate on communal lines, especially in the Mangalore-Udupi and the Dharwad-Hubli belts. But it might not succeed in the other parts of the state. The BJP’s big leader in the state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, has lost much of his clout in the last few years. It should come as no surprise if the killings of M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh will turn the tide against the BJP because the party failed to condemn the right-wing elements who gloated over the bloody incidents. The only man in the BJP who seems to have sensed this is home minister Rajnath Singh.
The BJP and Mr Modi then face an uphill task through 2018 and into 2019. The economy remains unpromising and troublesome and there is not much that the government can do about the subdued market sentiment. What can be seen is that three-and-a-half years into the government, the Prime Minister has lost some of the irrational exuberance of 2014, 2015 and part of 2016. He seems to be aware of the challenges ahead and he is slightly troubled. That should keep him on his feet.
The hope that the performance of the Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has generated after the Gujarat Assembly election results may not be the best guarantor of the party’s improved performance in the state Assembly election in the run up to 2019. What is however undeniable is that Mr Modi cannot hope to trounce the Congress as he did in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Mr Gandhi has become a force to contend with Indian politics. Mr Modi and his team cannot any more laugh away Mr Gandhi.
The ruling BJP then has a real battle on its hands. It has to fight the Congress in 2018 Assembly and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The dream of conjuring away the Congress from Indian politics is turning out to be a grand illusion. The BJP is not the monarch of all it surveys. It is good news for Indian democracy.