In this series of articles, 2017 in Review, we look back at the year in each region of the world. Seventy years on since Partition, Vivek Rajkhowa takes a look at what’s been happening in India.
2017 marks the seventieth anniversary of India’s Partition and as always one cannot discuss India without bringing up Indo-Pakistan relations. During the course of the year, insurgents within Northern India have taken the lives of soldiers and, in June Pakistan claimed to have killed five Indian servicemen at the Line of Control in Kashmir. This has only served to heighten tensions between the two countries.
Diplomatic relations have all but ceased, there are no flights between the two countries and there is a genuine fear that war might be on the horizon. This is not an unreasonable fear but it is nevertheless unlikely. This is not only due to the actual damage such an armed conflict would bring, but it would waste much of the political capital that Prime Minister Nehrenda Modi accrues in standing up to Pakistan. Threats and bluster, after all, feed his nationalist base. As with any conflict or tension between these two countries, it appears that little will be resolved soon.
The death of journalist Gauri Lankesh has had a serious impact on India, both politically and socially. A vocal critic of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lankesh was gunned down outside her home in September.
She made a great many enemies during her time, criticising what she saw as the BJP’s flagrant disrespect of Indian society’s core values. In order to preserve India’s free society, she believed the press needed to be permitted to hold the government to account. This led to her receiving a great many threats, one of which, it seems, was credible.
Lankesh, ignoring these threats, continued to champion the truth. Her death sent shock waves through India, prompting a debate about press freedoms and a more general one over freedom of speech. There was introspection about how quick some within the media are to reach judgements without researching the facts, as well as over whether the government and political parties have undue influence on newspapers.
The reverberations following Lankesh’s death have not died down. Discussion is still flowing about the role of the press in a country with so many voices. This debate can only be a good thing, and will hopefully bring more clarity for everyone.
Modi on the wane?
2017 was also the year that the image of Modi as the unfaultable leader of a new wave of Indian politics was dented slightly. It started with demonetization, which Modi claimed would remove “spectre of corruption and black money” so endemic under Congress’ rule.
Instead, it has only harmed the very people it was meant to protect. The poor and the lower middle class, who had dealt almost exclusively in cash, now must handle their financial affairs in a completely new and unexpected fashion.
The political fallout has the potential to be dramatic. Whilst Modi and the BJP won state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, their victory in Gujarat, Modi’s home territory, was by a shorter margin than he would have liked.
Congress managed to exploit the sense of discontent among Modi’s former core supporters, who were tired of the corruption within state government and broken promises. The twenty-four-year-old firebrand Hardik Patel, who hails from the same community which once voted for Modi in droves, brought fire and spunk to the campaign trail, making Congress seem a viable entity to rule a state which has always been more anti-Congress than any other. The narrow victory in Gujarat will have sent Modi a message. He cannot be complacent; his image is beginning to fray.
2017 has also seen the ascent of Rahul Gandhi, son of one Prime Minister, grandson of another, finally confirmed as President of Congress, replacing his mother Sonia. He has his work cut out.
Congress has ruled India for much of its independent life; the Gandhi family has ruled Congress for almost as long. There are negative connotations associated with both, and the Indian public made their thoughts clear in 2014, when they elected Modi as Prime Minister, doing so again during countless state elections.
Rahul has had a rough initiation into Indian politics. However, Congress’ performance in Gujarat has indicated there might be a shift in the electorate’s attitude towards the party and towards Gandhi. His open and personable demeanour on social media and daily interactions with the populace seem to have won him support. It has certainly made him appear more approachable.
Gandhi’s own rejuvenation has seen a rejuvenation of the party, but Gandhi nevertheless needs some serious policies and PR victories before he is considered a potential candidate for the highest office in the land.
Eyes on 2019
Modi and Gandhi, the BJP and Congress, will continue to battle one another throughout India in 2018 as they build up to the 2019 election. Modi must have some serious policy wins and add more substance to his positions. Gandhi must continue his social media push, reinvigorating his party to remove the stain that continues to tarnish them.
In the meantime, India hopes that the deadly smog that has recently enveloped the capital, New Delhi, will begin to subside. The pollution had been so bad that the Indian cricket team took to the field wearing masks for their match against Sri Lanka. And if Indians can’t even play cricket, things must really be serious heading into 2018.