We cannot predict politics but we can understand political trends. If 2014 was the high point in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political history, current trends suggest that the coming year is going to be very challenging for the Hindu right-wing party. Based on the year-end political debate in India, it appears that the country is going to witness highly polarized politics in 2015.
So what is in store for Indian politics in the new year? Will the political narrative and aspirations that catapulted Narendra Modi to the helm of political leadership in Delhi hold true in 2015 also?
The headlines that dominated the final weeks of 2014 were in sharp contrast to ones that came earlier in the year. Gone is all the talk of economic reform, new beginnings, and structural reform. What characterizes the debate today is the issue of religious and social tension as a result of the rising assertion of the Hindu right in India.
The Modi-led BJP government seems to be in no mood to rein in the divisive forces which have run amok across the country, raising very serious questions about the priorities of the ruling party.
At the end of 2014 the government issued an ordinance to introduce significant changes to the Land Acquisition Act. The declared idea is to fast-track projects in key sectors such as power, roads, defense, and housing. This is the second ordinance issued by the government in a week. The first one was on insurance sector reform and the allocation of coal blocks. An ordinance is promulgated when parliament is not in session and it has the same weight as a law. However, the ordinance has to be ratified by parliament within six months of its promulgation.
But why would the administration resort to ordinance when the BJP won an election with a historic majority just over six months ago?
In the just-concluded winter session of parliament, the Rajya Sabha (upper house) could not transact any substantial business due to continued disruptions by the opposition parties. The non-BJP parties, which command an overwhelming majority in the Rajya Sabha, wanted a categorical statement from the prime minister on the issue of religious conversion that has been disturbing peace in some parts of the country. Hardline Hindu groups in recent months have undertaken forcible conversions of non-Hindus into their faith. These hardliners derive ideological sustenance from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu religious group that promotes cultural nationalism and strives to make India a predominantly Hindu state. Modi has been a member of this group for decades. Parliamentarians wanted categorical assurance from the prime minister that he would rein in fringe Hindu groups, but the BJP leader refused to acquiesce to these demands because a consequence would be that important legislation like insurance sector reform would be gridlocked.
However, the very next day, after the conclusion of the winter session, the government decided to promulgate an ordinance on a key reform. The idea was to pass the ordinance in a joint sitting of parliament in the next session should the opposition continue with its disruptive aggression in the Rajya Sabha.
By taking the ordinance route, the government wants to send the signal that it is serious about economic reform and would not allow politics to stand in the way.
The hidden message, however, is something different. By bypassing the parliament, the government is not only veering into constitutional impropriety, but it also wants to tell the country loud and clear that it will play ball with fringe elements. The prime minister’s silence on this issue during the winter session of parliament further reinforced this perception. He risked the anger of parliament rather over offending radical Hindu groups hell bent on disturbing communal harmony in the country.
If the government can bypass opposition in parliament, can it do so outside parliamentary halls as well? Can economic reforms and investment from abroad come in when society is in turmoil?
If the ordinance shows the government’s intent to push for economic reforms, it also reflects the BJP’s encouragement to Hindu hardliners to continue with their divisive agenda.
Narendra Modi is a prisoner of his past. He and his party have always exploited religious fault lines to come to power. The second part of 2015 will see an important election in Bihar, an eastern Indian state, and the BJP is desperate to capture this key gateway to the east. A BJP government in Patna, Bihar’s capital, would give the Hindu right-wing party a major boost which could play an important role in subsequent elections in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
The Modi wave is gradually waning and it might not ensure the party a victory in the crucial state next year. The Hindu right-wing has always resorted to religious polarization to secure victory. The conversion debate, attack on religious minorities, burning of places of worship, and religious violence are old tactics that the majoritarian party has been using to capture power.
Therefore, to expect Prime Minister Modi to rein in these fringe elements is to be ignorant of history.
2015 is a test year for Modi not only on the economic front but also on the political field. With the impending merger of six former socialist parties in a few months time, the BJP will have tough time in capturing power in Bihar. The imminent merger of the ruling Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the two most prominent regional parties in Patna overwhelmingly representing the marginalized and socially backward communities of Bihar, might pose a big challenge to the ambitious Hindu right.
At the national level, when all six splintered socialist groups come together under a single flag, they will be a formidable challenge to the expansionist ambitions of the BJP. Modi’s juggernaut looked invincible in the absence of unity in the opposition camp. With anti-BJP forces closing ranks, the coming year will be challenging for the BJP.
The spate of ordinances combined with the aggressive polarizing politics of the radical Hindu right have given enough ammunition to the opposition to corner the rightist regime.
The new year will be trying for the Congress Party and its leadership. Its performance will be tested in the Delhi Assembly elections which are slated to be held sometime in February. Can the once dominant party reinvent itself? Can its leadership give up its reticence and lead from the front to reoccupy India’s waning secular space and offer a new political paradigm?
One thing is certain: 2015 will be a crucial year in Indian politics.