Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
2019 has turned out to be a strange year where victories did not smell like victories like the Balakote airstrike on February 26 after the February 14 Pulwama terrorist attack on an Indian army convoy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s thumping victory in the April-May Lok Sabha election where the party won 302 seats on its own, improving on its 2014 tally of 283, and major decisions like the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the bifurcation of the state into two Union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – on August 5 and the Supreme Court’s historic judgment on November 9 where the site of Babri Masjid was given to the Hindus was a subdued affair across the country, where fear and resentment on one side and a triumphalism on the leash filled the air. There was intense disappointment when the Chandrayan II turned into a disappointment as the much-hyped lunar orbiter with Vikram the lander which was carrying Pragyan the rover crash-landed on September 7 after a successful take-off on September 2.
Soon after he took over as prime minister for a second term, Modi declared the target of turning India into a $ 5 trillion economy by 2025. But after presenting her maiden Budget on July 5, which contained no stimulus package for an economy that was steadily decelerating – the growth rate for January-March 2019 was 5.8 per cent, it was 5 per cent in April-June 2019 and for July-September 2019 it was 5.3 per cent and it slipped to an alarming 4.5 0er cent in the July-September 2019 – Nirmala Sitharaman appeared to have sidestepped the prickly issues. But she was forced to make a series of post-Budget emergency measures at press conferences on August 23, August 30 and September 14. And replying to a short-duration discussion on the economic crisis in the Rajya Sabha on November 27, she declared that there was a slow-down but it was not a recession yet and she declared there would not be a recession ever because the government is taking enough measures to prevent that. The absence of happiness or a sense of achievement in 2019 can be directly traced to the grey shades of the economy, pushing the people to the brink of blues in psychological terms. The economy has not yet gone into a recession and the people have not yet gone into a depression.
BJP’s victory in the summer was marred by the death of senior and prominent party leader and former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on August 6 and former finance minister Arun Jaitley on August 24. Swaraj and Jaitley were leaders of opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively from 2009 to 2014, and they occupied key positions in Modi’s first term in office. Both receded into the background even before the election. Swaraj did not contest the election citing health reasons, and Jaitley refused to be part of the new government again on health grounds.
The party’s summer success seems to have been short-lived as it failed to get a majority on its own in the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. The chief campaigners of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister-cum-party president Amit Shah tried to sell the central government’s major decision of stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under the temporary constitutional provision of Article 370. But the pitch did not work. The BJP had to take the help of Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party. In Maharashtra, in a sudden break of the quarter-century alliance, Shiva Sena broke away and the BJP was falling short by 40 seats of simple majority despite Modi and Shah harping on the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Coming on the heels of the Lok Sabha this was a big setback for the party, and more so for Modi and Shah.
It has not been a great year for the Congress, the much diminished main opposition party with just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha compared to its tally of 54 in the last Lok Sabha. Rahul Gandhi, who took over as president of the party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, in 2017 and led an aggressive anti-Modi campaign in the general election in summer, conceded defeat and resigned from the office of president owning moral responsibility for the electoral debacle. And he stuck to his decision despite pressure from party leaders to remain in office. The party then asked his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who had served for 18 years as president to resume office. Despite the deep despondency in the party over the poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections, the party put up a creditable performance in the Haryana assembly elections as Sonia Gandhi entrusted the state leadership to former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Though the party did not do well in the Maharashtra assembly elections, and slipped to the fourth position, falling behind its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi took the pragmatic decision to join hands with the disgruntled long-time ally of the BJP, the Shiv Sena, along with the NCP, to form the government in Maharashtra. It became clear that the Congress was staging a fightback if not exactly making a comeback.
After the BJP’s impressive victory in the summer Lok Sabha election, it seemed that the BJP had emerged the unchallenged political party in the country, similar to the position occupied by the Congress from 1947 to 1967, from 1971 to 1977, and from 1980 to 1989. The assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra showed that the BJP had no monopoly over political power in the country, and that India remains a vibrant multi-party democracy.
The BJP has however managed to impose its majoritarian stamp in national affairs. The Supreme Court’s judgment on November 9 awarding the much-contested Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya to the Hindu petitioners has indirectly helped the party’s promise of constructing the Ram temple at the site of the mosque. The party also drove home its point on the issue of triple talaq among Muslims by passing a law that made triple talaq a criminal offence after the Supreme Court declared it null and void in a landmark judgment two years ago. There are hints that the party wants to make uniform civil code the law, overriding the apprehensions of religious minorities, especially the Muslims which is the largest religious minority in the country. But as yet there is no clarity whether the BJP wants to have its way in the matter. It has fulfilled its commitment to remove the temporary special status of Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370.
The party, however, seems hell-bent on making India a Hindu homeland through the Citizen Amendment Bill, which confers Indian citizenship to religious minorities, which include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees and Christians in the neighbouring Muslim states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The move is largely seen as a way of protecting the Hindus and of reinforcing the image of the BJP as a pro-Hindu party.
Prime Minister Modi has been declaring his allegiance to the Constitution and the principle of secularism. But the bent of the policy is to give primacy to the sentiments of the majority, and it happens to be the Hindus. The big question of 2019 for Modi and the BJP is whether it is enough to appease Hindu sentiment. The Hindu majority would want better economic growth that would generate more jobs and increased earnings and a better quality of life. They may not be satisfied with the Modi government driving out illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and by giving citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees.