As an IAS officer, Alphons Kannanthanam was a boss who set the pace for his team. During his stint as land commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority, the officer trekked across the ridges and layouts of the big city, with a revolver in his waist, identifying encroachers and rooting them out. He changed the face of Delhi, retrieving hundreds of square kilometres of land. As a politician, Alphons has been made minister in charge of tourism, which again requires criss-crossing the country and the world for promotion. But such is Narendra Modi's and Amit Shah's passion to every state in India that Alphons has been told to travel to Meghalaya, which has a significant Christian population, virtually every weekend to woo the Congress stronghold. Alphons juggles between incredible India (the theme of tourism) and electoral India as he woos tourists and bishops for different causes. Meghalaya goes to polls in early 2018, along with Mizoram and Tripura.
But he is not alone. Prakash Javadekar, the human resource development minister, has to juggle with hundreds of universities and redraw the education policies to provide better skills and manage the primary education system. Every weekend, Javadekar travels to Bengaluru as he has been put in charge of BJP's efforts to wrest back Karnataka. Party national spokesman and northeast specialist Nalin Kohli, who has established a good practice in Supreme Court, now has to hand over cases to other lawyers, as he is shuttling between small towns of Mizoram and Meghalaya. Modi himself has already done election campaigning in the two states and is planning to be in Tripura. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and northeast co-ordinator Himanta Biswa Sarma (also Assam's finance minister) are giving feedbacks on the tactics to be adopted in each of the three northeastern states. Now, Piyush Goyal, who has the double burden of railways and coal in the Modi ministry, and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have been told to take the political express to Karnataka to supplement the efforts of Javadekar.
Three of these states—Karnataka, Mizoram and Meghalaya—are controlled by the Congress, while Tripura has long been in the grip of the CPI(M). The BJP is the invader of these opposition fortresses. The Congress and CPI(M) are equally frenetic to prevent a saffron swamping. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who was preoccupied with the Gujarat elections, has now turned his full attention to the four states, and has deployed his core team to retain power in the party strongholds. He has decided to put faith in the serving chief ministers—Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, Lal Thanwala in Mizoram and Mukul Sangma in Meghalaya—to be the electoral face of the Congress, even though the elections will be a high wire contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi.
In Tripura, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is the CPI(M)'s best mascot and the party is confident of handling the crowded opposition field consisting of Congress, BJP and Trinamool Congress. Like BJP in Gujarat, the CPI(M) is trying for a record sixth consecutive term victory under Sarkar. However, Mamata Banerjee, who had grand designs of becoming the dominant party of the northeast after her spectacular victories in Bengal since 2011, has lost some of the ground support and also her enthusiasm for expansion. Some of the Congress MLAs who had jumped ship to join Mamata have returned home. But the BJP is busy poaching and wants to uproot the CPI(M).
In the second half of the year, the BJP is not the raider of the political kabaddi game. It is the defender in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Naga People Front ruled Nagaland, where the BJP is a junior partner. The strategies have been left to the chief ministers as the BJP has been in power in both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for 14 years, while Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is completing her second, but not consecutive, term in Rajasthan. The Congress, which is the principal opposition in all the four states, has raised stakes high. While former chief minister Ashok Gehlot and PCC President Sachin Pilot have criss-crossed Rajasthan several times to put the BJP on the defensive, Madhya Pradesh has seen a new assertion by Congress leaders, with Gwalior royal family's scion Jyotiraditya Scindia saying he will not wear a garland (offered at public meetings by supporters) until a Congress leader occupies the chief minister's chair in Bhopal, ousting the long tenured Shivraj Chauhan of BJP. In Chattisgarh, Chief Minister Raman Singh is under pressure from a rejuvenated leadership, after majority of the senior leadership was wiped out in a terrorist attack in tribal belt of Bastar five years ago. Chief Minister Raman Singh, called Chawal Baba (the rice giver) by his admirers, is pushing more populist measures to win a record fourth term in the tribal dominated state of central India.
The Naga People's Front, which has dominated Nagaland for more than a decade, is depending on Modi's initiatives to sign an accord with the separatist group NSCN led by Isaac Muivah, even though the accord details have not been made public even two years after signing. The Congress has been aggressive in demanding the release of the document, even as the NSCN government in Hebron continues to influence thinking of the voters. The Modi government kept the framework agreement a secret because of the likely fallout during the 2017 elections in Assam and Manipur, as the NSCN has been demanding Naga dominated regions of these two states to form Greater Nagaland. The BJP wrested Assam from Congress, while it formed a government in Manipur, despite Congress emerging as the single largest party.
The eight elections will provide a glimpse of the electorate's mood towards both the BJP and the Congress, just ahead of the general elections to Lok Sabha scheduled in early 2019. The regional parties, which dominate the non-BJP benches in the present Lok Sabha, are not major players in the eight assembly elections of 2018. Only Janata Dal (Secular) is fighting independently in south Karnataka, while CPI(M) too takes on both Congress and BJP in Tripura. Otherwise, it is a direct fight between the lotus and the hand symbols in most of the electoral arenas of 2018. The eight states together send 99 members to the Lok Sabha, out of a total strength of 543 elected members. Out of that the BJP won 79 and its ally Naga People's Front one seat. The Congress managed 14, while Janata Dal (secular) and CPI(M) got two each, and one seat went to National People's Party of Meghalaya, which later supported NDA. Thus the states scattered in central, northeast, west and south of India have contributed a big number to Narendra Modi's 2014 kitty and he would like the numbers to increase.
Modi and Rahul will play both defender and attacker in the elections of 2018. The Gujarat face off between the two leaders, which was intense and bitter, sets the tone for campaigning. PM Narendra Modi had pledged, while thanking his partymen for the victories in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, that he will refocus on development and asked the faithful to repeat the vikas slogan. The Congress would defend the track record of its governments, especially the welfare emphasis of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in Karnataka and the Mizo identity preserved by Lal Thanwala in Mizoram. But Rahul Gandhi would sharpen his attack on the jobless economy and agrarian distress—two themes which resonated in parts of Gujarat and helped the Congress with a close fight to BJP. The Congress would also be focusing on the resurgent Hindutva forces of Rajasthan and the increasing number of hate crimes in the desert state, which is a prime tourist destination of the country.
While the eight assembly elections are fought on the popular level, the BJP would also look forward to increasing its numbers in the Rajya Sabha, thanks to victories in elections of major states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam and Himachal Pradesh. Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party would make its debut in Rajya Sabha as it is poised to win all the three seats from Delhi, for which elections would be held in February. Parties whose numbers would be reduced include the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.
Apart from electoral contests, all eyes would be on how Modi and his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley would face the twin challenges of boosting the economy and addressing the issues of agrarian distress and joblessness in rural and urban areas. The Gujarat elections have seen signs of unrest on these issues in rural areas, where the swing to Congress helped the hand overcome the lotus in several rural constituencies, which were otherwise strongholds of the BJP. There is an acute feeling that Modi has been an incremental reformer, who has concentrated more on tightening the governance systems and preventing leakages, rather than being large hearted towards the citizens, who voted him in with both feet in 2014. While prevention of leakages in fuel, food and fertiliser subsidies have streamlined the systems, there is a feeling even among ruling party MPs that there has been no corresponding effort to increase jobs and incomes for those who were affected by the low economic growth and lacked economic safety nets. The challenge is how to be populist without allowing inflation to ratchet up. Manmohan Singh was able to do it a decade ago by spending huge money on both farm loan waiver and rural employment guarantee scheme, because the economy was booming in 2007-2008. But Modi has a tougher financial situation to deal with. The economic challenge would contribute to voter mood in the elections, and there is also a need to correct the extremism on issues of faith, dress and food. The year 2018 is full of challenges and opportunities for both the national parties, which would also impact indirectly the fortunes of regional parties, looking for success in the Lok Sabha elections.