2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

A look at what portends for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in 2018. Undoubtedly 2018 will be politically significant for both leaders.

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time Now2017 has just said a goodbye. No doubt it was an eventful year for India, politically and otherwise. So, how will the year that went by cast its shadows on 2018?

While everyone is speaking about 2019 general elections, 2018 will be the semi-final year which will set the tone for 2019. We will know where the political winds are blowing. If the winds favour the BJP in 2018, it would not be surprising that Narendra Modi may take the gamble of advancing the general elections to late 2018. In any case, 2019 will be see Modi’s hands tied as his government will be prohibited to announce any major schemes six months prior to the general elections. Hence, if the elections to four states favour the BJP, Modi may announce something momentous and then call for general elections along with Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Thus, it is the end of 2018 that may be crucial and momentous.

But 2018 will start off with Modi showing that India is a power in its own right. The Prime Minister carried out a masterstroke by inviting the heads of all 10 Asean countries as chief guests of the Republic Day. This is a message to both China and Pakistan who are not members of Asean. Inviting heads of Asean nations is the most significant exposition of India’s  ‘Act East’ policy. And these are nations who are not very comfortable with China and have no love for Pakistan. Asean is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and has as members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time Now
PM Modi invited ASEAN leaders as the Chief Guests at India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations | File Photo

Hence, 2018 will start with a bang. Republic Day 2018 will be the first time ever that so many leaders will together be chief guests at the parade which showcases India’s military might.

Look East’ as ‘Act East’ policy, the Modi government has favoured a more “dynamic” and “action-oriented” approach

Since it renamed ‘Look East’ as ‘Act East’ policy in 2014, the Modi government has favoured a more “dynamic” and “action-oriented” approach in its relations with not just Asean. Modi has widened the net with special emphasis on Japan. However, Asean continues to be the central pillar of ‘Act East’, and the special summit in January is expected to further underscore the point.

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2018 will also mark 25 years of dialogue partnership with Asean. It is also significant that Singapore and Vietnam have been exhorting India to increase its presence in the region. China’s increasing assertiveness, some would say belligerence, in the way it has handled maritime territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, continues to spark fear and insecurity in the region. Four Asean countries — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — are directly party to disputes involving Beijing in the South China Sea.

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time-Now
Leaders from south Asia met in Kathmandu for the 18th SAARC summit | File Photo

When Modi took over in 2014, he had invited heads of Saarc nations that included Pakistan. In an outgoing year, Pakistan has been kicked out of India’s reckoning and with the success in tackling China at Dokhlam, the Modi dispensation will keep Beijing guessing.

This is also an indication the India will get tougher with Pakistan. Cross-border infiltration and terrorism will be dealt with with an iron hand and this will suit the Modi administration as the NDA would be directly addressing the growing sentiments against Pakistan among the electorate in India.

The crucial Union Budget will come up on February 1. By all indications, this will be a historic budget. It will be the first after the GST.

After displaying its military might and foreign policy muscle, Modi will look inward. The crucial Union Budget will come up on February 1. By all indications, this will be a historic budget for many reasons. It will be the first after the GST. But more significantly, it will be last full-fledged budget of the Modi government before the general elections. In 2019, the NDA government can only go in for a vote on account budget.

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time-Now
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley chairs a pre-budget consultation meeting with financial sector regulators | File Photo

The 2018 budget will, in all likelihood, be a please-all budget keeping the voters in account. There have been serious charges against the Modi government that it had failed to address the agrarian crisis, rural distress and common household stress. Hence, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is likely to open up his heart and the budget purse strings to address the plight of farmers across India, especially in areas where it matters electorally.

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Rural distress is also a major concern. In four years, the focus of the Modi government had been on urban areas. Of course, the government had launched many schemes aimed at the rural sector, but there is more to do. One of the main reasons why the BJP lost considerable seats in Gujarat was due to rural distress.

The common man, rather housewives, too have been facing distress with shrinking household budget. Already the government has given indications that it plans to address the plight of housewives by putting on hold the monthly increase in LPG cylinder price.

2018-Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul-Gandhi-News-Time-NowHence, the budget can see major concessions for farmers, rural sector and common household. In short, it will be a political budget loaded with sops. Commonly used items would become cheaper. With crude prices dipping in global markets, Jaitley may take the bold step in tweaking at the prices of petroleum products.

Jaitley will also try to lessen the pain of traders post-GST. Already there is widespread anger not at GST, but the way it is being implemented. Jaitley is likely to smoothen the process.

The budget will also aim at employment generation – another key area where Modi government is facing the flak. But whatever is promised towards employment generation will remain just that – just promises as one year would be too short a time to generate jobs across India. This will be a weak point which the Congress will exploit in 2018 in its run up to 2019.

 When the debates on the budget end, the focus will shift to the first political power keg – the Ram Janmabhoomi

Even before the debates on the budget end, the focus will shift to the first political power keg – the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case which is scheduled to come up for hearing on February 8.

The arguments in the case had ended on a bitter note earlier this month and the Congress had found itself scoring a self goal when senior party leader Kapil Sibal, who represented one of the parties in the case for the determination of ownership of the 2.77 acre Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi disputed land, wanted the hearing to be postponed to after July 2019 when the general elections would be over.

Even the three-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra was shocked and refused to entertain the plea. Hence, when the court resumes hearing, the BJP will be on an upbeat mode.

To BJP’s advantage is the stand taken by the Sunni Wakf Board which wants an early end to the case. But Sibal pleaded for a postponement because, according to him, BJP’s 2014 election manifesto promised a Ram temple in Ayodhya and hence the hearing should be postponed to July 2019, by when general elections would have decided the fate of the Narendra Modi government.

2018-Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul-Gandhi-Ram temple in Ayodhya -News-Time-Now
Rama’s birthplace is a matter of centuries of faith, and that cannot be shifted | File Photo

A judgment is unlikely in early 2018, but whichever way the verdict goes, it will favour the BJP ahead of the 2019 general elections. Moreover, there are back channel talks going on for an out of court settlement. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has successfully been able to bring the warring factions to the table. The Sunni Wakf Board too is fed up of the long and never-ending case.

If there is an out-of-court settlement, the BJP will claim full credit. The Congress, which slept since the demolition, is nowhere in the picture. 

The Muslims too have come to realise that they do not have an upper hand at present. Hence, the compromise is that the Hindus could build a temple for Lord Ram at the disputed site and the Muslims should get the remaining land and a grand mosque in Lucknow.

But the BJP would do well in not hyping the temple issue beyond a limit. This is because today’s generation is more bothered about vikas, roti, kapada and makan. Moreover, hyping the temple issue will activate the fringe Hindutva groups. Already, priests of several akharas have sought building of Ram Temple to avenge the death of kar sevaks aboard Sabarmati Express in Godhra in 2002. They want the BJP to complete the construction before the next Babri Masjid demolition anniversary, which will come barely five months before 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The first political test will come for the BJP and the Congress in the state elections

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time NowBut the first political test will come for the BJP and the Congress in the state elections. The first to go to Assembly polls would be three small states – Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland. These states may not give an indication regarding the direction of the political wind blowing across India. But the next one – Karnataka – in April – would surely be an indicator. This is where the BJP and the Congress will come head-on in a bitter battle. It will be the first major test to the new Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

In all probability, the election commission may advance the date of the Karnataka elections. The term of the Congress-led Siddaramaiah government ends in May. The election commission can call for elections anytime six months prior to the end of the term of the present Assembly. That would bring us to January, 2018. The terms of the Assemblies in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland end in March. Hence, it would be prudent to have a common window period to hold elections.

Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah is fighting for another term. The main challenge is led by B S Yeddyurappa, a former chief minister, once imprisoned briefly on a graft charge. 

In fact, the Karnataka election campaign is already underway. A Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah is fighting for another term. The main challenge is led by B S Yeddyurappa, a former chief minister, once imprisoned briefly on a graft charge. Yeddyurappa has already been named as chief minister candidate should the BJP come to power.

The BJP desperately needs Karnataka and the Congress is desperate to hold on. The fight is almost even, though some see a slight advantage for Siddaramaiah who has emerged as a local Amrinder Singh. He wants to campaign and win the polls on his own terms without much interference from the high command.

Siddaramaiah is a good orator and comes from the Kuruba (shepherd) community which is socially and economically backward. This gives him the sort of appeal enjoyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But then, he is not a collegial leader, strongly anti-intellectual and feels that corruption is a non-issue because he had provided a relatively clean government.

2018-Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul-Gandhi- Karnataka election campaign -News-Time-Now
Siddaramaiah is on a tour of the 124 constituencies where the Congress won in the 2013 Karnataka assembly elections and Parameshwara is visiting the other 100

But Karnataka’s real politics is in caste coalitions. In the previous election, the Congress came to power on the back of a carefully engineered combination of some Vokkaligas, some Lingayats (both powerful middle castes) and mainly because of the support of Dalits and Muslims. This time, Yeddyurappa is working overtime to make dents in the Dalit votebank. However, he has acknowledged detractors in his own party, who have made no secret of the fact that they will work to contain him. The BJP’s biggest danger is internal sabotage, not the Congress.

People also have very poor opinion of Yeddyurappa and his brazen style of functioning. Ironically, the BJP may win or lose because of Yeddyurappa. Also, like in Gujarat, the Congress is trying to play the caste card by promising minority status to the powerful Lingayat community. Traditionally, the Lingayats have always supported the BJP and Yeddyurappa is the tallest leader of the community.

2018-Will Be Significant for Narendra-Modi and Rahul-Gandhi- Karnataka-election-campaign -News-Time-Now
Yeddyurappa is doing all that he can to ensure that the state of Karnataka votes for him

There are also moves to engineer a split between the Lingayats and Veerashivas. The Lingayat movement for minority tag is likely to become one of the deciding factors at the hustings next year. In fact, the Lingayat issue has been taken across the borders of Karnataka to Telangana and Maharashtra. 

The deep divide within the community is being looked at in the same manner as the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, that helped the Congress make inroads into Saurashtra. Political insiders claim that Yeddyurappa is said to have told his close associates that the party failed to capitalize on the Lingayats’ demand, and was missing a critical opportunity to keep its vote bank intact.

Now, with the Congress having usurped the mantle of backing the Lingayat community for minority tag, the BJP has joined the race late to avoid further damage to the unity within the community, that has favoured the saffron party time and again.

The biggest factor to go against Siddaramaiah is anti-incumbency

But the biggest factor to go against Siddaramaiah is anti-incumbency. This will depend on how well the BJP will be able to show the present CM in poor light.

Out of the four states that go to the polls, if the BJP picks two or three and the Congress draws blank, the saffron party will be on the roll early in 2018. Traditionally, except for Tripura, most northeastern states always vote for the party that is in power in Delhi.

So, by the first half of 2018, one may get a fair idea of the direction of the political wind. But 2018 will go out with a bang as two major states – Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – would witness Assembly elections, probably in December. If 2018 by and large favours the BJP, the party may club the general elections with the two states. But if the party senses that the winds are not in favour of the BJP in the two states, the saffron party would still opt for simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha. This is because, if the BJP does not do well in the two states, it would be difficult to build a narrative for the general elections. A simultaneous poll will minimise the likely damage and give Modi more time and space to campaign across India.

2018 Will Be Significant for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi-News-Time NowBut a rejuvenated Congress, notably Rahul Gandhi, will give Modi a tough run in 2018. It is surely not going to be cakewalk for Modi. There will be no repeat of 2014. The year 2018 will also witness the formation of new coalition based on castes and ideologically differing parties would come together to take on the BJP.

Thus, 2018 will be an important year for both the BJP and the Congress. The stakes are indeed high for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

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Raj Shankar

Shankar Raj is a senior journalist with more than 30 years experience, mostly with The Indian Express and The New Indian Express. He was the Editor for Karnataka and Kerala editions of The New Indian Express, and former Managing Editor of the Nyusu Digital Media P Ltd. Bengaluru.

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