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The Big Story: Lok Sabha sequel
If it seems like we only just got over a grueling election season and its aftermath, gear up, because polls are again around the corner. Elections to the state assemblies of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand are expected later this year, most likely by November. The Election Commission is likely to announce the dates any day now.
For the most part, the storylines to these upcoming polls are going to be extensions of May’s general elections: the dominating presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party looming over Opposition parties that are struggling to put together a coherent response.
Maharashtra is instructive here. If you looked at it purely on paper, you might think of this as a state that is ripe for the Opposition’s picking.
First there is the broader slowdown, which is affecting the factories and food processing units that drive Maharashtra’s economy. Then there have been the political convulsions in the state over the last few years, such as the Long March of tens of thousands of farmers trying to bring attention to the agricultural crisis.
There was the Bhima Koregaon incident, in which members of the dominant Maratha community clashed with Dalit-led activists of an anti-caste movement, resulting in a number of arrests. The BJP government in an attempt to defuse the political fallout sought to convert it into a Maoist plot, but the incidentremains contentious.
Of course, Maharashtra has been, in some ways, the perfect example of how climate change and poor policy making will affect the country in the years ahead. The state has frequently seen simultaneous flooding and droughts, and its capital – India’s financial centre – is routinely submerged under massive amounts of water.
Despite all this, the BJP seems very comfortably placed in the run-up to the elections. The party, along with long-time ally Shiv Sena (which makes noises about going it alone seemingly every election, usually to capitulate shortly after) won a massive 41 of 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state earlier this year.
The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, meanwhile, picked up just five. The Congress itself was down to just one seat, in the state where it was founded. Over the last few months, as many as 24 leaders from either of these parties have joined the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, including 13 Members of the Legislative Assembly and 10 former ministers.
With its national leadership still muddled, the Congress is struggling to present a coherent narrative in the state as well. In Mumbai, for example, film actor Urmila Matondkar, who was brought in with much fanfare to contest Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, quit the party after just five months citing infighting within the Congress. Sharad Pawar, the leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, has attempted to put up a brave face, but there are questions about how his outfit will go forward as well.
The Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, led by Prakash Ambedkar, which put in a positive showing in the Lok Sabha polls for a new front is also facing a difficult time, since it neither has a tie-up with the principal Opposition alliance nor with its Lok Sabha partner, the All India Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen.
Meanwhile, the BJP-Shiv Sena-led state government has been on overdrive, with 37 Cabinet decisions approved in one meeting earlier this month. From farm waivers to water grids for drought-affected areas to doubling of minimum wage, on paper at least the state has made some major moves.
In other words, the general expectation is that the BJP will comfortably extend its Lok Sabha gains and win big in the state. The campaigning period will also coincide with India’s festive season, when policymakers are hoping that consumer demand will rebound and we will see the bottom of the economic slowdown.
Economics may also be the only chance the Opposition has to take on the ruling alliance, especially if indicators only worsen despite the festive season. But are the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party in any position to take advantage of such a situation, even if it presented itself to them? It is almost tiresome to say this but four months after the Lok Sabha drubbing, the Congress doesn’t seem to have learnt much other than that it cannot seem to operate without a Gandhi at the helm.
For decades, Maharashtra was a Congress-NCP bastion, where even if Hindtuva parties found some currency, it still ran into canny political operators on the other side. But if Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis wins another term, is there a risk of the state going the way of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, which have seen three or more terms of BJP-led rule?
Kashmir is still under lockdown, more than 40 days later, with mainstream politicians continuing to be under house arrest. Access to information is still limited, but government ads across many newspapers are insisting that Kashmiris are better off without Article 370.
The government blamed millennial mindsets for the drop in auto sales and dismissed growth-rate calculations and maths (because that never helped “Einstein discover gravity”). In both cases it tried to explain, but the insistence on skirting around the slowdown remains. Finance Minister Niramala Sitharaman, meanwhile, announced more measures aimed at boosting the economy, though the response remains tepid.
Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that if there is one language that can unite India today, it is Hindi. The statement prompted plenty of pushback from leaders in South Indian states, where there have been powerful movements against the imposition of Hindi in the past.
Is the BJP ready to dispense with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar? Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, of the BJP, tweeted that Janata Dal United chief Nitish remains the “captain” of the alliance. But nobody has backed him up and that tweet was itself posted, deleted and then re-posted, prompting lots of speculation.
Not just Kashmir: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy put Opposition leader Chandrababu Naidu under house arrest. The move, however, might have actually energised Naidu and his party.
A steep increase in penalties for traffic violations has run into trouble, with states around the country choosing to reduce the fine amounts instead. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari asked states not to weaken the law, but a number of states are doing so regardless.
Along with the changes in the Cabinet, a few moves have also taken place in the Prime Minister’s Office. A new position of principal advisor was created to accommodate former cabinet secretary PK Sinha, and former additional principal secretary to the PM PK Mishra has been made the principal secretary. Nripendra Mishra, who previously held that role, and was one of Modi’s key aides, stepped down in August.
Reports and Op-Eds
The 2019 Lok Sabha election results confirmed that Modi’s victory in 2014 was no anomaly. Instead, as Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hinston write, India is now firmly in the fourth phase of its electoral history, in which one party is again in a massively dominant position, as the Congress was in the early years of the republic.
The Centre is putting tremendous pressure on the Finance Commission to give it more money. For all its talk of cooperative federalism, never mind the treatment of Jammu and Kashmir, the Modi government has made it clear that it is a massive centralising force, as M Govinda Rao explains from a fiscal point of view.
Indian popular sentiment (at least per one survey) displays more support for a “strong leader” and even Army rule than in decades. Coupled with courts that are unwilling to prevent the majority from trampling on civil liberties, this presents a worrying picture for India’s liberal democracy, writes Neelanjan Sircar.
A troubling new paper suggests human brains are not built for self-rule. Rick Shenkman explains what the research says, and the somewhat unexpected reason it cause a stir among political psychologists.
Can’t make this up
This was, of course, the week in which the government blamed millennials for the auto slowdown and asked us to disregard mathematics.
But the real you-cannot-caricature-India story may have come from Madhya Pradesh, where, two months after two frogs were “married” in a ceremony to appease the rain gods, they have now been “divorced” in the hopes of putting a stop to the deluge.
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