We have an early India Fix for readers this week to fold in a final 2022 year-ender.
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The year 2022 was hectic for Indian politics. While the Bharatiya Janata Party held its strong lead as India’s largest party, it was clear that maintaining this hegemony is something that the party will have to work on constantly, given its relatively weak position in the states. For the person on the street, on the other hand, it was a hard year, marked by unemployment and inflation as the Indian economy struggles to recover from the past few years of a slowdown caused by policy moves such as the introduction of the goods and services tax, demonetisation and, of course, the drastic lockdown called in 2020 due to Covid-19.
Here are the top five developments that characterised Indian politics in 2022.
Bharat Jodo Yatra
With the Congress party at its nadir, the party had to do something drastic to stave off death. In 2022, the party did seem to realise this fact, launching an ambitious march from Kanyakumari, on the southern tip of the country, to Kashmir. Led by Rahul Gandhi, the yatra’s 3,500-km route will pass through 12 states.
As I have reported, the yatra has had some success. It has attracted strong crowds and gone some way in salvaging Rahul Gandhi’s reputation.
However, as is clear from the successive defeats for the Congress in state elections while the yatra was underway, turning the electoral tide will not be easy when faced against the BJP’s hard power of funds, media and the Hindu nationalist narrative.
The year 2023 will be the test for the Congress: will it be able to convert the goodwill accruing from the yatra into votes for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections?
In the early 2000s, former Defence Minister George Fernandes described China as India’s principal enemy, even going so far as to argue that Prime Minister Vajpayee’s decision to recognise Tibet as part of China was an “error”.
Today, it is clear that Fernandes was right. For more than two years now, the Chinese army has pushed aggressively into Indian territory. Just in December, Chinese troops launched another incursion, this time in Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s internal politics has made things worse. Worried that its image of being iron fisted on national security will be questioned, the Narendra Modi government has often tried to downplay Chinese aggression. It has also shut down any questions about its China policy, aggressively, if somewhat absurdly, attacking the Opposition as having links with the Chinese government.
Inflation and unemployment
Inflation is political kryptonite for governments, so 2022 will worry the BJP. Retail inflation remained above the Reserve Bank of India’s target of 4% for every month of the year (December data is yet to be released). In fact, other than November, it was also higher than the RBI’s ceiling of 6%.
This fact that this is combined with poor employment opportunities means that Indians are undergoing a severe spell of economic hardship.
However, political blowback has been muted, given the BJP’s strong Hindutva push. What has happened, though, is that India’s politicians are falling back on massive welfare schemes to paper over the economic hardship. The Modi government announced on December 24 that free foodgrains will be given to over 80 crore beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act, making this, by far, the largest welfare scheme in the world. The Opposition has also, in turn, pushed measures like free electricity and large pensions for government bureaucrats in the states it rules.
Of course, welfare as well as reservations will only act as a safety net and are not a substitute for economic growth. Even with state support, economic hardship will continue to hit Indians hard if things don’t improve.
Spread of communalism
Majoritarian hate has been on the rise for some time but 2022 was a particularly bad year. April saw communal rioting sweep across several states with almost the same pattern: aggressive processions, often armed, entered largely Muslim neighbourhoods and demonstrated in front of mosques sparking off violence. Later in June, repeated provocative comments by a BJP spokesperson even set off an international storm, with many nations condemning India. The year ended with BJP MP and terror-accused Pragya Thakur calling for the beheading of Muslims as well as attacks on Christians in Chhattisgarh.
The year made it clear that India’s formal institutions are not up to the task of stemming this tide. This, of course, includes the police but also the judiciary, which has mostly been unable or unwilling to legally penalise even egregious examples of communalism. In fact, even something as simple as governments demolishing houses of mostly Muslims accused of a crime – a punishment with no legal basis and which goes against natural law, punishing people and their family before being proven guilty – has continued unabated.
Central agencies weaponised
While the BJP struggled at the level of the states, its hold on the Union government remained extremely strong. As a result, the party has been able to strongly weaponise central officials to push its power in the states.
The two strongest examples are Maharashtra and Bengal. In June, the BJP managed to toppled the Maharashtra government, with senior members of the ruling coalition already under fire from the Enforcement Directorate. The Anti-Defection Law, which is supposed to prevent such topping of government, assuming them to be done under monetary incentive or duress, was in effect suspended by the Supreme Court.
In Bengal, several ministers and senior party members of the Trinamool are now in jail, with the Central Bureau of Investigation pursuing multiple cases. More drastically, the Modi government has even suspended the working of the rural employment guarantee scheme in Bengal, since it was the Trinamool rather than the BJP that was benefiting from it politically.