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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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2018: The Unfolding Agenda

India must be mindful that while the India-US strategic partnership auguers well, a nation’s strength rests on a growing economy, robust foreign policy and good governance

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The next twelve months will be the most decisive in India’s recent political history. A slew of eight state assembly elections will set the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. Clearly, the BJP-led NDA government will have to move into overdrive in the final lap of its five-year term.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention will again be divided between campaigning and governing. The first big-state poll, Karnataka, in April 2018 will be followed in December 2018 by three other key assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In between are elections in four northeastern states — Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland. Party president Amit Shah has already begun strategising for these as well as the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.  

For the Prime Minister, constant campaigning takes a toll. Though he is extraordinarily fit, Modi needs to build a strong second line of leadership. His Cabinet has some outstanding performers but also several laggards who have been given portfolios for political and coalition reasons. The demand to hold simultaneous parliamentary and assembly elections arises as a result of the packed electoral calendar. This year is a prime example. Barely weeks after a gruelling campaign in Gujarat, Modi and many key ministers will have to return to campaign mode: Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura hold elections in February-March 2018, followed shortly by Karnataka.  

In the northeast, the BJP-backed North Eastern Democratic Alliance (NEDA) has made significant inroads. The BJP runs governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. It would like to increase its footprint in sensitive border states. Modi will again be needed to give the electoral campaign a final push in early 2018. The six-month break from campaigning after April 2018 will be short-lived with Mizoram due for elections in November followed by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December.  

Karnataka especially will need Modi’s time, energy and attention. Infighting among local BJP leaders has muddied the party’s chances of winning back the state from the Congress. The narrow victory in Gujarat will cast a long shadow over Karnataka. A turbocharged Rahul Gandhi will campaign as fiercely in the Congress’ lone southern bastion as he did in Gujarat. With the wind under his sails, Rahul knows the Congress cannot afford to lose Karnataka. If it does, it will be left with just Punjab and a smattering of northeastern states.  

For Modi, winning Karnataka is equally important. After the Gujarat setback, he needs to re-establish the BJP’s electoral muscularity. Besides, the BJP needs a southern beachhead.

 Tamil Nadu is in an existential crisis. Kerala remains beyond bounds for the BJP. Telangana is firmly in TRS hands. Andhra Pradesh, under Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, remains the NDA’s sole presence in the south. Karnataka therefore, carries a value to the BJP well beyond its size. Modi knows that of the three large states that go to the polls in December 2018, Rajasthan could well be a lost case. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are winnable but again will occupy a disproportionate amount of Modi’s time.  

And Governing
Meanwhile, four key areas will dominate Modi’s agenda for 2018 before campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha election overtakes him.  

The Economy 
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has slumped to six per cent in the first half of 2017-18 and will end the year at between 6.50 per cent and 6.75 per cent. To ramp up growth to 7.50 per cent to eight per cent, the key driver is investment. Private sector spending is slated to revive once banks are recapitalised and restart lending to corporates for large infra projects. Consumption and job creation will follow as the economy rebounds.

The next general election will be fought on the 2014 promise of development. Many of the government’s schemes like the Mudra Bank have quietly transformed lives. Nearly 75 per cent of these small loans given to several million entrepreneurs have been credited into new Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts opened in the names of the women of the household.

Technology has been a game changer in this effort. Digitisation is also helping farmers with weather forecasts and ensuring that subsidies aren’t siphoned off by middlemen. But all this progress will be negated if farmer distress on the ground is not addressed. Farmers are not receiving promised loan waivers on time. The bureaucracy in the states and at the centre remains heavy-handed and at times callous in the face of rural distress. In Gujarat, the rural vote went to the Congress. In states with a higher rural population ratio than relatively urbanised Gujarat, that could spell trouble for the BJP in 2019.  

Social Inclusiveness
Hindutva has been the leit motif of the BJP. But in an increasingly cosmopolitan India, there is a need to focus on an inclusive nationalism rather than an exclusively Hindu nationalism. Since virtually every Indian is genetically a Hindu, asserting Hindu nationalism is a non-sequitur.  

In a deeply religious country like India, Hindu nationalism is used to inveigle votes. Just as the Congress and the Left for decades used Muslims as vote banks, the BJP is invoking religion to appeal to Hindus for long silenced by what they perceived as an anti-Hindu Congress government.

Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping spree in Gujarat underscored how the Congress too has woken up to the fact that appealing to 80 per cent of Indians makes more electoral sense than appeasing the other 20 per cent.

The movement to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya is likely to reach a climax in late 2018, irrespective of any Supreme Court order — if in fact the apex court delivers one before the next Lok Sabha election. Modi recognises the powerful impact of  the Ram Temple idea and there is little doubt that the BJP will exploit it to the hilt, especially with three big state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh preceding the general election. But the Prime Minister also knows that development trumps deity in everyday life. He will have to tread a fine line between the two as the poll-heavy year draws to a close.

Good governance also demands the establishment of a Lokpal and a robust RTI. In 2018 that should be a priority for the Modi government. Accountability rests at the heart of good governance. Without a Lokpal and with an atrophied RTI, the government fails the first test of governance: openness.

Right To Information activists like Sailesh Gandhi have now approached the Bombay High Court to compel the government to appoint information commissioners to reduce the backlog of RTI queries.

Two “great power” poles will dominate the world in this unfolding century. The first, led by the United States, will include Western Europe, India, the Middle East, Australasia, Japan, South Korea and large parts of east Asia.  

The second, led by China, will embrace parts of central Asia and Africa (where Chinese investments have given it salience) as well as the rogue states of Pakistan and North Korea. Russia will be a wild card. It has in recent years drawn closer to China which buys oil and gas for its expanding industries from sanction-strapped Moscow.

The United States in its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) statement (which by statute determines US global policy) has for the first time elevated India to the status of a “leading global power”. It has excoriated China and Russia and called Pakistan-abetted terrorism a threat to the world order. The US security statement establishes a new global doctrine:

“A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world. The US interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific extends back to the earliest days of our republic. Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. We will expand our defense and security cooperation with India, a Major Defense Partner of the United States, and support India’s growing relationships throughout the region.

“The United States continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan. We will deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region. We will press Pakistan to intensify its counterterrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials.”

As 2018 unfolds, India must be mindful that, while the India-US strategic partnership augers well, a nation’s strength rests on a growing economy, a robust foreign policy and good governance. The final year of Modi’s first tenure as Prime Minster will prove decisive. In this special issue, leading experts across domains analyse the agenda for India over the next twelve crucial months.  

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of  The New Clash of Civilizations