The curious electoral shadows of 2017

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The penultimate week of 2017 was witness to several dramatic political events which, in all likelihood, will cast their shadow on 2018.

First, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled off a record sixth consecutive win—overcoming a spirited challenge from the Congress—in Gujarat and then regained Himachal Pradesh, again overcoming the incumbent Congress; with this, the saffron party has managed an unprecedented expansion of its national electoral footprint.

Second, the special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) pronounced a shock verdict in the so-called 2G scam (involving the allocation of spectrum during the regime of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance). It absolved the 17 accused, including former telecom minister A. Raja, of any criminal wrongdoing.

Together, the fallout of these two unrelated events are likely to influence the political narrative in 2018, which in turn will have a bearing on the 17th general elections due in 2019.

The electoral showdown in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are a mirror to six similar direct contests between the BJP and the Congress due in 2018. Since 2014, the BJP has mostly had the upper hand in the various electoral contests, resulting in diminished political territory for the Congress. Barring the outcome in Punjab (where the Congress, under the inspired leadership of Amarinder Singh, returned to power) and Bihar (where the Congress was a junior partner to the Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar), the Congress, the oldest political party in the country, had actually morphed into an also-ran.

It will be tempting to see Gujarat therefore as a dramatic change in momentum, since the Congress ran the BJP so close. At the same time, we must remember that the Congress lost despite the perfect anti-incumbency storm brewing against the incumbent BJP: governance issues in Gujarat after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shift to New Delhi from his home state, visible disaffection among communities like the Patels, rural distress and the disquiet after the demonetisation of high-value currencies and rollout of the goods and services tax (GST). Worse, the party’s local leadership itself was unable to exploit this anti-incumbency angst and suffered defeats.

The BJP, led by Modi, had encountered similar circumstances in the 16th general election. And we all know how that went down.

Particularly worrying for the Congress should be the fact that it outsourced that part of its campaign (to the troika of Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani) which lent a sharpness and focus to its messaging. It also embarked on the path of soft Hindutva (not just through the publicized visits of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to various temples, but also because of the perceptible absence of Muslims from the campaign), something that will create its own dynamic—it may find its appeal among voters, but a BJP-lite image may cramp the ability of the Congress to pull together allies to take on Modi in 2019.

The big takeaway from the Congress point of view is that in some ways the party managed to set the agenda. In Bihar, (though there were very different political dynamics at play) too, part of the success was because BJP was playing catch-up on the agenda; very unlike what panned out in 2014 when Modi defined it.

In this context, the verdict in the 2G scam should be a shot in the arm for the Congress. Predictably, it has been quick to launch a campaign on social media accusing the BJP of misrepresenting facts. But it should tread carefully to avoid overreach. It is not that there was no wrongdoing (as the Supreme Court ruled in 2012) in the process of allocation of spectrum; instead it is that the CBI court did not find any evidence to prove the criminal charges that were levelled. Further, it should be remembered that another CBI court found violations in the allocation of coal blocks, and has indicted several people.

Regardless, it is clear that 2018 will see a resumption of electoral hostilities between an energized Congress and the BJP—the new principal pole of Indian politics. The six direct contests should give a sense of how both the parties stack up ahead of the big showdown in 2019.