18 Jan 2019 21:57 IST

2019 – an election year when anything can happen

The job Bill, SP-BSP combine in UP and the Third Front’s potential are key factors as the scene hots up

The year 2019 will be crucial for India, both economically and politically. By all indications, the BJP would not like to put off elections beyond summer so we are most likely to see the general elections held some time in May or June.

Two crucial political developments took place recently. The first was the Modi government’s decision to include a 10 per cent quota for economically backward upper castes in educational institutions and government jobs.

Stung by its reverses in the recent Assembly elections, the BJP is, no doubt, betting on the upper caste Hindu vote in the crucial Hindi heartland States. This is a gamble as there is a danger of the OBC vote, so crucial for its 2014 victory, slipping out of the BJP’s hands.

The Modi government hurriedly pushed the Bill through both Houses of Parliament with hardly any meaningful debate. The Opposition parties too played ball as they did not want to be seen as opposing this Bill.

Definition of economic backwardness

However, several commentators have raised serious questions regarding this move. The ₹8-lakh income criteria to define economic backwardness has itself come in for severe criticism. Some commentators point out that almost 95 per cent of Indians fall under the ₹8-lakh income bracket and are, hence, eligible for some form of reservation!

Also, as Shankar Raghuraman says in a recent column, if the government states that all those earning more than ₹2.5 lakh are liable to pay income-tax, then how are people earning ₹8 lakh considered economically backward?

Besides, the 10 per cent quota will breach the Supreme Court mandated 50 per cent cap on reservations. So will the government move pass legal muster?

These are some of the questions that the Modi government will likely put aside till after the elections.

Powerful combine

The other crucial development is the coming together of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in the electorally crucial State of Uttar Pradesh. Putting behind them more than two decades of rancour, these two parties have joined hands to take on the BJP. And the alliance was announced early enough for both parties to work out the nitty-gritty, in terms of number of seats and their allocation.

The two parties came together for the first time in the 1993 UP Assembly election, held in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But the coalition government came apart by 1995 and, since then, the parties have been bitter rivals. The first signs of a thaw were seen when the SP and the BSP fought the Phoolpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha bypolls in May 2018 and defeated the BJP.

That both these parties, at least for the time being, have decided to ignore the Congress Party is also significant. By keeping out the Congress, which is not much of a force in UP, do these two parties envisage a fractured mandate with a non-BJP, non-Congress Third Front-like combine having a shot at power?

The possibility of this worries many in the country. The last time such a front was in power was in 1998. Since 1999 the central governments have been headed either by stable UPA or NDA alliances. With the predominance of regional parties, a ‘Third Front’ combine is generally seen as lacking in ideological and policy coherence and viewed with suspicion. Given the past experiences, in 1989-91 and 1996-98, such fears are not unjustified.

Markets, industry edgy

The markets and industry are also nervous over such a prospect. But recent political history also throws up some interesting facts. P Chidambaram, whose reformist credentials are beyond doubt, headed the Finance Ministry for the first time in 1996 under the United Front government. And his 1997 ‘Dream Budget’ had India Inc eating out of his hand.

Also, the markets tanked the day the UPA first came to power in 2004 as they had bet on a second term for the Vajpayee government. The Left parties’ outside support to the Congress-led UPA had clearly unnerved the markets. It is indeed ironical that it was in the 2004-09 period of UPA-I that GDP growth as well as the Sensex and Nifty scaled new peaks.

If, by some electoral quirk, a Third Front does come to power, will someone like Chandrababu Naidu emerge as the consensus candidate for Prime Minister’s post? Surely, both markets and India Inc will have no problem with him becoming the PM. Naidu has not in the past shied away from expressing his national ambitions.

But despite the recent reverses, one cannot write off the BJP’s chances as Narendra Modi is still the leader with most political capital in the country. Also the BJP-RSS is a formidable election-fighting machine.

Developments over the next few months will be interesting, with the political scene hotting up, keeping journalists, columnists and pundits busy.

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