The 2019 mandate was interpreted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as an endorsement of its long-held ideological beliefs. It also had the political confidence and legislative might to push through changes that it had long sought.
The BJP-led government began by leading the passage of what came to be commonly referred to as the Triple Talaq Bill — criminalising instant triple talaq. This, the government claimed, was a step towards gender justice. Critics, however, saw it as a step meant to alienate minorities and potentially victimise Muslim men.
On August 5, the government, in a surprise move, pushed through legislative changes on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). This effectively nullified Article 370, removing the special status the state had enjoyed so far. It also reorganised the state, carving it into two distinct units of J&K and Ladakh. These units were also deemed to be union territories. The government claimed these measures would lead to the greater integration of the region with the rest of India, help citizens in the region enjoy the same rights as citizens elsewhere, and defeat separatism and terrorism. Critics, however, pointed to the fact that the move was not accompanied by consultations with the leaders and people of J&K; it was implemented with draconian measures including large-scale detentions; and could potentially lead to more alienation.
The government then pushed through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. This was aimed at fast-tracking the grant of Indian citizenship to persecuted minorities — Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs and Jews — from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government argued this was a humanitarian gesture. Opposition parties claimed that the absence of Muslims from the list of communities eligible for citizenship was discriminatory and unconstitutional. They also linked this with a possible National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a step meant to disenfranchise Muslims; the government clarified that NRC was not on the agenda and the move had nothing to do with Indian Muslims.
There was one other significant milestone — which aligned with the BJP’s long-held agenda but where the government did not have a role. The Supreme Court, in a landmark verdict in the Ram Janmabhoomi case, while holding the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 as illegal, awarded the disputed land in Ayodhya to the Hindu parties. This has enabled the construction of the Ram Temple at the disputed site.
Even as the year was marked by ideological triumphs for the BJP, its record on the electoral front was mixed, with more setbacks than successes.
In the first set of state elections after the Lok Sabha polls, Maharashtra threw up a hung assembly — BJP was the single largest party, and along with Shiv Sena, it had a majority. But the Sena demanded rotational chief ministership. When the BJP refused to relent, Sena aligned with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The BJP sought to wean away NCP leader Ajit Pawar, but the ploy failed. Uddhav Thackeray (below) took over as CM and BJP lost one of India’s most important states.
In Haryana, the BJP retained power — but it lost its majority, and had to ally with Dushyant Chautala. In Jharkhand, in a subsequent election, the BJP lost power to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress combine. And in Delhi, earlier this year, despite a high-voltage campaign, in which several BJP leaders were accused of hate speech, the Aam Aadmi Party won a resounding mandate for the second time in a row, bringing Arvind Kejriwal back to power.
All of this established a new trend in Indian politics — of voters carefully distinguishing between national polls and state polls, national leaders and state leaders, and national issues and state issues. Anecdotes from the ground and surveys suggested that PM Modi remained the most popular national leader, but this was not enough to offset local disadvantages the BJP had.
The party also confronted another political challenge — in the form of a proliferation of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and a possible National Register of Citizens. The protests were led largely by Muslims, but also included others opposed to the government. While the BJP’s support base rallied behind the government, the public opposition raised questions about social harmony, and led to international criticism.
The economic story
Even as the government scored ideologically and, despite setbacks, continued to remain dominant nationally, the big challenge for it remained the economy.
As figures made public on Friday show, growth in 2019-2020 slipped to 4.2% — from 6.1% in the preceding year. For the third year in a row, growth decelerated. An official National Statistical Organisation report, released last year, showed that unemployed had increased in 2017-18 to a 45-year high. According to another report, which was leaked and subsequently not published, real consumption levels dipped between 2011-12 and 2017-18. All of this presented a grim picture.
Growth was slowing, unemployment was rising, demand was plummeting. In addition, the balance sheet crisis extended to non-banking financial companies.
The government decided to address this situation primarily through supply-side mechanisms.
The biggest measure announced was in September last year, when corporate taxes were reduced. The government also unveiled a ₹100 lakh crore infrastructure plan for the next five years. But these measures were not enough to instil confidence and questions about whether the Indian economic story would revive continued to be asked.
The coronavirus challenge
And then the pandemic came home.
Modern India has rarely faced a challenge as grave as the coronavirus disease pandemic. As the disease travelled to India and cases increased, PM Modi first announced a one-day people’s curfew and then a three-week national lockdown. The government was given credit for not underplaying the threat and taking decisive action — but it also came in for criticism for not planning the lockdown well.
Over the past 70 days, the government has had to confront serious health infrastructure deficits — even as cases have continued to rise. An economy which was already slowing is now staring at an outright recession. Joblessness has grown, demand has dipped further, manufacturing has shrunk, sectors such as aviation and hospitality have borne huge losses, services have been disrupted, supply chains have broken down.Alongside, the government has also had to confront a serious humanitarian crisis, with migrant workers, in millions, returning home to their villages in desperation.
PM Modi’s first year was laced with successes and challenges. But the rest of his term, and perhaps, even his legacy, will now he defined by how his government helps India deal with the pandemic — which is set to redefine politics, the economy, and everyday life.
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