The juggernaut of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electoral victories rolled on unimpeded: in March the party won the Uttarakhand, and Goa elections, followed by its spectacular showing in Uttar Pradesh and capped, in December, by its performance in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. However, Narendra Modi’s magic did not work in Punjab where angry at the nepotism of its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the voters rejected the BJP and installed the Congress in power. The Punjab verdict has unsettling implications for the alliance in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections as the state sends 13 MPs to the lower House. In the new year, the party will make special efforts to grow its base in West Bengal and Tripura — both states that are due to have panchayat elections — and Odisha. The BJP will also have to review its relations with alliance partners this year as Lok Sabha elections beckon.
After a long spell of coy Will He, Won’t He, Rahul Gandhi finally accepted the crown and was “elected” Congress President — there was no challenger. The election, carefully timed before the Gujarat Assembly election results, for which the Congress expected a good showing, saw even sober party members, like former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, eulogising the new president. This was seen as a way of easing the younger Gandhi in the job but also indicated insecurity among the old guard, which is fearful its services might no longer be required. Gandhi, however, is making no sudden moves, although he will eventually have to disappoint some when he recasts the Congress Working Committee that will have his imprimatur. There is also uncertainty about sister Priyanka and the role she will play in the party in the future. Many see her emerging as a parallel power centre.
UP’s Mahant chief minister
“I know he will not listen to me. But of the lot, he’s the best,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a confidant before Adityanath, Mahant of the Gorakhpur math was announced as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh where the BJP posted a spectacular victory. Adityanath, who has several FIRs to his name, has his own Hindu Yuva Vahini, a force of young people fiercely dedicated to protecting the rights of the Hindu majority. Adityanath started his stint with a campaign against illegal slaughterhouses that destabilised for a while the state’s leather- and meat-exporting industries. Since then, he has announced a farm loan waiver and held an “Invest in UP” event. The metro rail has started running in Lucknow and the chief minister has promised pothole-free roads before 2018 is out. He will have to ensure the BJP’s performance is such that it repeats its 2014 tally of 71 seats in 2019.
Aadhaar and the base effect
Controversy has stalked Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometric identification project, ever since its inception a decade ago. But 2017 proved a year of reckoning as far as security concerns and privacy were concerned as the government continued to make Aadhaar linkage mandatory for a host of services that had nothing to do with the efficient delivery of benefits to the poor — bank accounts, provident fund accounts, tax returns and mobile numbers. Without a robust privacy law in place, all manner of leaks and fake cards floating in the system and public restiveness with such impositions, a five judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court hearing petitions challenging the legality of Aadhaar agreed to the Centre’s submission to extend the deadline for Aadhaar linkages to march 31, 2018. Hearing for this case begin on January 17.
Nitish back in BJP embrace
It all started when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asked his party, the Janata Dal United (JDU) to vote for Ram Nath Kovind, former Governor of Bihar, for the post of President of India and not the official United Progressive Alliance (UPA) candidate Meira Kumar, also from Bihar. Tensions between alliance partner Lalu Prasad, and Kumar were growing. Part of the problem were the multiple scams in which Lalu Prasad and his family —including son Tejaswi — were reportedly involved. It was a bloodless coup. Kumar announced his resignation as chief minister, after breaking ties with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The prime minister in a tweet welcomed the move and the BJP offered support. In parallel, the PM called Sushil Modi and asked him to get ready to take oath as deputy chief minister. In a matter of days, Kumar had changed sides, making him one of the most adroit chief ministers in India.
For three months, India and China belligerently faced each other over a plateau in Bhutan known as Doklam. The casus belli was an expansion in June of road-building activity by the Chinese into an area claimed by Bhutan, which India supports. The Chinese incursions into a tri-junction between the three countries brought troops perilously close to the north Bengal “chicken neck”. Indian troops moved in to protect Bhutan’s claim and negotiators argued over maps and lines even as China’s state-controlled press ratcheted up the anti-India rhetoric — Xinhua even released a video titled The Seven Sins of India. It looked like 1962 all over again, this time between two nuclear-armed states. By August, it was all over bar the shouting, with the two countries agreeing to de-escalate tensions. With Chinese president Xi Jinping strengthening his powers and the global Belt and Road project taking off, look for more clashes in Arunachal and Ladakh.
In May, the Union government issued a notification on changes made to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules, 2017. Henceforth, while selling any cattle — from cows to camels — the seller had to furnish a written declaration that it would not be sold for slaughter. Subsequently, instances of harassment and assault by cow-protection groups were reported from various parts of the country. Farmers opposed the restriction, saying they cannot directly access slaughterhouses. States such as Kerala, West Bengal and Meghalaya opposed the move on grounds that it related to an issue under their jurisdiction. The Madras High Court granted an interim stay on the notification which the Supreme Court extended to the entire country in July. By November, the government indicated that it would withdraw the notification, but not before the government had egg all over its face.
Messenger of God in prison
Gurmeet Ram Rahim, chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect — which had a large following among Dalits and Dalit Sikhs — was the darling of all political parties for his talent for “arranging” votes. This clout did not save him from a conviction in rape and murder cases. He won’t be coming out anytime soon as law enforcement agencies discover a sordid trove of evidence from his Haryana fortress. He was known for his unorthodox approach to evangelism and used rock music, Hindi films and other popular media to purvey his message of living a simple life. How much at odds this was with his life, his supporters discovered after evidence of his decadence and corruption came out following his arrest and those of his associates. The Hindu and Sikh religious fraternity lost no time disowning him and his “sect” is likely to collapse as he is expected to be in prison for at least 20 years.
Kashmir in frozen turbulence
The most lasting image of Kashmir in 2017 has to be that of Farooq Ahmad Dar, a shawl weaver from Budgam, strapped to an Army jeep as a human shield against stone-throwers. The officer who thought up this tactical measure was decorated by the Indian Army and congratulated by the central government. As 2017 closed, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party was preparing to induct her brother, Tasaduq Mufti, into the State Legislative Council. That project has run aground as the governor has returned the file to the government citing a court case questioning appointments by the government. Despite the appointment of an interlocutor, there seems little hope for normalisation. Going into 2018, it is hard to be optimistic about Kashmir. As the valley is in the grips of near freezing conditions, all that comes to mind is the number of people who lost their lives in terrorist- related violence both in the valley and on the Line of Control.
The crisis in Darjeeling was sparked in early 2017 by fears of the Bengali language being imposed in schools in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)-administered areas where a majority of the people are Nepali-speaking Gorkhas. Nepali is the official language in the hills of Bengal, recognised by the state in 1961. GJM revived an almost 100-year-old demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Its chief Bimal Gurung, from an undisclosed location, asked supporters to fight a final battle in August. The four months of violence in the Darjeeling hills saw tourism and the tea economy take a major hit. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee backed down, clarifying that Bengali will be an optional subject and an uneasy truce prevails. Banerjee is determined to break the Gorkha homeland movement and is biding her time. The panchayat elections in Bengal next year might see another phase of violence.
After eight months of uncertainty, the Supreme Court issued a clarification on its December 2016 order banning liquor sales within 500 metres of national
and state highways. The order threw the liquor industry into crisis with bar closures and job losses, even as several state governments moved swiftly to denotify highways in order to get round this ban. Pleas by several state governments prompted the Supreme Court to clarify in August that the ban did not apply to highways that run within municipal limits.
In October, the apex court ended 11 months of debate over its November 2016 order making it compulsory for the national
anthem to be played in cinema halls before screening a movie and requiring everyone to stand up. This ruling was made by Justice Dipak Misra before his appointment as chief justice. He was part of the three-judge bench that modified the order saying it was no longer compulsory for people to stand by replacing the word “shall” with “may”, arguing that patriotic displays were a matter of individual choice.