2017 was thus the year that began with the spell cast by UP, but also the year that ended with the lesson of Gujarat.
Against the infinite background of time, a year passes in less than a blink of an eye. And yet, given the finitude of our mortal lives, it is a long enough period to assess what transpired in the last 365 days, and what this is likely to bode for the year to follow. Assessments of this nature are selective, arbitrary and subjective. What is important for some is irrelevant to others. But, taking this as given, I will focus on what, from my point of view, were some of the key developments of 2017.
The first of these was the sweeping victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in March. At over 300 seats, the margin of the win surprised even the BJP! If the unproven rumours of manipulated EVMs are discounted, there were identifiable reasons why the BJP did so well. Foremost among these was the organisational vigour of the saffron party. For over a year it assiduously worked to reach out to the non-Yadav OBCs, the non-Jatav dalits, and the upper-caste brahmins and kshatriyas, thereby creating a winning coalition. By contrast, the Opposition was divided, disorganised and deluded enough to believe that a last-minute coalition between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress could salvage matters.
The huge BJP win triggered two further consequences. First, it was misinterpreted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an endorsement of his demonetisation adventurism. This was a big mistake. It is true that when the UP elections were held, the poor still nurtured the hope that — all their sufferings notwithstanding — the PM was actually going to implement his Robin Hood skills: take from the rich and give to the poor. Demonetisation was thus seen as an instrument of financial empowerment for the deprived, and due revenge on the undeservedly rich. The PM himself said that this is what he had done. Until UP the people believed him. After UP, as it became increasingly clear, that the rich were still rich and the poor had become poorer, anger welled up against a bad economic scheme badly implemented. The irony was that while misplaced faith in demonetisation did help the BJP to maximise its win in UP, it was precisely because it won so big that it refused to accept — post-UP — the growing mood of disappointment, disillusionment and anger against this “monumental management failure”.
This arrogance, in turn, had two further consequences. First, riding high on the UP results and believing erroneously that the people had endorsed demonetisation, the BJP rushed ahead with the implementation of the GST scheme. Sager counsels that it should be deferred until the supporting infrastructural grid to implement it was fully ready, fell on deaf ears. Nor did hubris allow the BJP leaders to understand the adverse impact of an economic measure that was procedurally a nightmare, and structurally — given its multi-layered rates and taxation levels as high as 28 per cent — hardly the GST that was originally conceived of. The net result was a double whammy for the economy: the disaster of demonetisation and the disastrous GST.
The impact of UP was not limited only to the BJP. Some leaders of Opposition parties began to waver, and to believe that the BJP, under the dual leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, was actually invincible. Of these, the biggest catch for the BJP was Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose entire politics since 2013 had been based on the ideological necessity to oppose the BJP led by Mr Modi. In a political volte face of epic proportions, Mr Kumar in July 2017, broke his ties with the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Yadav, and the Congress — the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance that he had created to decisively defeat the BJP in 2015 — and joined the BJP, becoming CM for a record fourth time, but this time with the BJP support, and not — as in 2015 — because of being Mr Modi’s most ferocious opponent.
While this was a political triumph for the BJP, it was still not getting the message from the ground on the economy. Jobs were not being created anywhere close to what the party had promised; the agrarian sector was in great distress with large numbers of farmers continuing to commit suicide; the index of industrial production was hardly growing, nor was manufacturing; the fiscal deficit had begun to inch up, as was, more dramatically, inflation; and the corporate sector continued to be comatose, with private sector capital investment at its lowest in the last 10 years.
The BJP, however, thought that all of this was of little consequence, so long as emotions could be whipped up on other more visceral issues, such as beef killings or films like Padmavati, or the building of the Ram temple.
It was Gujarat that gave the ruling party the fear of its life. To its surprise it found that the people were no longer amused or entertained by either the slogans or the eloquence of its leaders, and not even by the attempts at religious polarisation. What the people were asking was: Kya hua tera vaada? They were visibly angry at the gulf between promise and delivery, and of the consequences of demonetisation and the GST, and wanted to attack the arrogance that had subsumed the BJP leadership. Although the BJP narrowly won the election, a re-energised Congress under Rahul Gandhi gave the BJP more than a run for its money and that too in the state of both the PM and Mr Shah, the party president, where just three years ago — in 2014 — the BJP had won all 26 parliamentary seats, and nearly 60 per cent of the popular vote translating to close to 170 Assembly seats.
2017 was thus the year that began with the spell cast by UP, but also the year that ended with the lesson of Gujarat. It is the year that will be remembered for the end of the honeymoon of the BJP. And, it is the year that could become the foundation of tectonic changes ahead, especially in the lead up to the general elections in 2019.