As my surname suggests, my forbears were astrologers. Yet, the one thing I have learnt is that forecasting is, to put it mildly, the most inexact of sciences. In other words, we almost always get it wrong when we try to foretell the future.
Take the most recent instance. Almost no one could forecast that the Western decision to undermine the Assad government in Syria would lead to an unravelling which resulted in the rise of the Islamic State.
So when we come to India, we can pose similar instances: how many people could predict that after Narendra Modi won 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, and 22 out of 40 seats in Bihar in that election in 2014, that the Bharatiya Janata Party would get a drubbing in the 2015 state assembly elections?
Just as Modi cannot control all the variables at home – the attitude of the Congress party, the state of the economy, the monsoon, or the mood of the electorate – neither can he manage the external variables such as the state of the world economy, internal developments in countries like Pakistan, Nepal or China.
So when we look at 2016, we should be modest in our opinions.
That said, let us look at some key issues:
1. Domestic policy
This is the year that we expect the National Democratic Alliance to convince the people who voted so enthusiastically for it in 2014 that it does not merely purvey slogans, but actually delivers. Contrary to what the Sangh Parivar thinks, the people who chose Narendra Modi in 2014 voted not to establish a “Hindu” society, but to improve their individual lives in terms of better health, education and employment opportunities. Hopefully this will be the year in which that realisation seeps into the BJP’s consciousness.
2. Foreign Policy
Given that he invited all SAARC leaders to attend his inaugural ceremony, neighbourhood was to be the leitmotif of Modi’s foreign policy. But the reality is that while he made important gains with distant countries like the US and Japan, he has had a mixed record in the neighbourhood. Modi should perhaps fix the Nepal and Maldives situation, but there are imponderables like the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh.
As for Pakistan, things had been problematic till Modi’s dramatic “drop in” on Nawaz Sharif in Lahore last week. Future lines on Pakistan are clearer – New Delhi will host the Heart of Asia conference dealing with Afghanistan next year and Modi is committed to attending SAARC’s 19th summit. Both would mean that India is committed to a cooperative sum game with Pakistan, rather than a zero-sum one, and we can see positive outcomes on the horizon.
Relations with China are neither here nor there. Expectations that the two could move ahead on their vexed border issue have been belied, despite Sushma Swaraj’s belief that the two can look at out-of-the-box solutions. Maybe 2016 is the year there can be movement on the issue that unfortunately limits our relationship – the border dispute.
3. Domestic front
There are no make-or-break state assembly elections for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2016. Perhaps this can be the year when the party can rethink the more controversial aspects of its politics, such as the demand for a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, which leads it into a confrontationist and unproductive mode. Terrorism is always the joker in the pack with no one, absolutely no one, being able to predict its course. Hopefully this year Modi’s Pakistan initiative will yield fruit and the dialogue on terrorism initiated by the two National Security Advisers will be productive.
2015 was the year “intolerance” came into the political debate. But as the year ended, we had the Prime Minister wishing every one for Christmas and Arun Jaitley hosting a party for Christian leaders. Earlier, speaking at Wembley Stadium in London, Modi went out of his way to emphasise and celebrate India’s diversity. 2016 should be the year in which the BJP buries its intolerant past and emerges as a conservative political force, rather than one propagating religious nationalism.
4. Economic Policy
All Indians would want the economy to turn around and measures like the Goods and Services Tax adopted. But that is easier said than done. So far, while the Modi government has had a bonus in the form of low oil prices, it has precious little to show for by way of reform measures to stimulate the economy. There are alarming signs such as the continuing drop in exports, and the Indian investors remain shy of putting their money down in Make in India. In any case, they are so stressed with debt that it is unclear whether they could put down money to invest. In such circumstances, why should foreign investors come? What we can all wish for in 2016 is that the government moves away from governing through slogans and gets down to the hard slog of governing the country well.
5. Defence policy
In 2015, it appeared as though Ministry of Defence had become the Ministry of Defence Procurement. In other words, the entire focus of the ministry was to push procurement which had been affected by the paralysis that had gripped the ministry under AK Antony, the defence minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.
Unfortunately, shiny new weapons are never battle-winning factors by themselves. There is a huge unaddressed agenda of reform that is needed to transform the Indian military from a manpower-intensive, technologically obsolete force into a battle-winning, lean and mean military. Hopefully, this will be the year in which the political leadership of the country takes up the challenge of facilitating the necessary reforms.