What 2017 has in store for Indian politics
Following the 30 December removal of Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu and his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Akhilesh Yadav from their parties, which made it untenable for the two to hold office, and the 31 December re-induction of the latter, Indian politics in the new year has opened on a tumultuous note. While making political predictions is usually a fool’s errand, these developments drive home the point that 2017 could be a big year politically. And a careful look at the year gone by can, at least, provide some pointers to how the political scene may shape up over the next 12 months.
First, the opposition’s search for able leadership to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling coalition at the Centre will continue, although it is difficult to say if it will gain any serious momentum. The assembly elections of 2017—first in UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand, then Manipur and Goa, and finally in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh—will provide some clues. UP, which sends the largest delegation to the Lok Sabha and where the BJP is expected to put up a tough fight against the Samajwadi Party (SP) government, will be the centre of attention. There was talk that the Congress may ally with the SP to stave off the BJP, but that’s been written off for the moment. However, given the uncertainty on the ground, the equation may change quickly.
The Congress may have marginally better prospects in Punjab, where the BJP’s ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, is facing strong anti-incumbency sentiment. However, here too, the Congress has failed to take ownership of the opposition space. First-timer Aam Aadmi Party, which showed promise initially, is also struggling as dissatisfaction grows within its rank and file—not just in Punjab but also in Goa.
As this newspaper noted last week, it has been more than two years since the principal opposition’s position was vacated by the BJP, and it still lies vacant. The ruling coalition is now half-way through its term—and, ideally, by this time, the opposition should have been able to project some sort of an alternative. Look at how the past two election cycles have played out: In 2004-09, the opposition was largely rudderless and uninspiring, and failed to challenge the ruling coalition, which emerged stronger in its second term. Between 2009 and 2014, however, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) lost its way while the BJP got its act together, leveraging UPA-II’s many corruption scandals.
In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s currency swap measure, which has—the debate over its long-term effects aside—certainly inconvenienced the general public, was a litmus test of sorts for the opposition. It was an opportunity to show its disparate parts could cohere to mount an effective challenge. But so far at least, opposition leaders have failed to capitalize on it effectively.
Meanwhile, the BJP, also with its eye on 2019, is working to go beyond its traditional support base. Its biggest fight will, of course, be in UP, where the party hopes to benefit from fishing in the SP’s muddy waters. But Modi’s currency swap, which hit the BJP’s trading community core, and his face-off with right-wing hardliners on cow vigilantism indicate that the party is even willing to take some risks to reach out to a larger cross-section of voters. Notably, in 2016, the party made progress in Kerala and scripted an impressive victory in Assam, which must be seen alongside the BJP’s larger push into the North-East. The BJP is also a rising force in Manipur—it did well in last year’s municipal elections and has brought influential local leaders into its fold, in addition to mediating from New Delhi in the state’s ongoing crisis.
But, even as the party seeks to expand its footprint, it cannot afford to ignore its existing bastions: Punjab will be the main challenge here but also Goa, post-Manohar Parrikar, to a lesser extent. Additionally, the party will also be looking to form governments in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where it has generally alternated power with the Congress. It will also have to pay some attention to its stronghold in Gujarat, where it has struggled to find an able replacement for Modi since he moved to Delhi.
Finally, it will be interesting to see if 2017 brings a generational change in Indian politics. One episode of this transition is already playing out in UP, where Akhilesh Yadav has been fighting a very public battle against his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav and has emerged the victor in the expulsion drama. In Punjab, the ageing chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, may choose to pass the baton to his son and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
In Tamil Nadu, both the major regional parties—the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—have leadership concerns. Following J. Jayalalithaa’s death, her confidante V.K. Sasikala has taken over as AIADMK chief but her equation with chief minister O. Panneerselvam is unclear. At the DMK headquarters, an ailing M. Karunanidhi is still the boss while his son and heir M.K. Stalin waits in the wings—even to be appointed working president. Back in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi is still unprepared to take over the reins from his mother even as the Congress party continues to fail to arrest its decline.
And then there is the question of Modi himself. Usually, as governments enter the second half of their terms, they either go into a holding pattern or opt for populism, both with an eye on the next election. But if the opposition continues to fail to take the fight to him, Modi may choose more vigorous governance—and that could disrupt prior calculations.
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