What are the real issues confronting the Indian electorate in 2019? Is it national security that needs many more chowkidars? Or is it the economy that needs a Dr Fixit? Many also argue that 2019 is when Indian democracy will undergo its most defining stress test. There are others, however, who think there is a ‘New majoritarian India’ that is just wanting to burst forward and finally shed all the old Nehruvian skin of dynasty and socialist economic planning residue. But if you are following developments from the bottom up of the news heap rather than top down from headlines beaming out of television channels, a very different picture seems to be emerging.
As the world’s biggest festival of democracy unravels, India in 2019 is increasingly smelling and tasting like the political flavours of 1999. In that year, the BJP won 182 seats and its regional allies brought in another 88 seats for the National Democratic Alliance to offer a coalition government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Congress won 114 seats, its allies 21. Back then, riding on the Kargil war, the Bharatiya Janata Party had made national security its election plank, but failed to improve its seat tally from the previous election. The sanctions following the 1998 Pokhran test and the 1997 Asian financial crisis had left the Indian economy badly bruised, unemployment and inflation had spiked and government coffers were drying up faster than expected. Still, Vajpayee returned to power and ruled a full five-year term, largely because he yielded much of the political space to regional allies.
Cut to 2019, regional parties and a clutch of smaller formations are not only back with a bang but fully aware that they will decide the fate of the next government. The whole (national party) will be less than the sum of its parts (regional groupings). And as India looks more federal than ever, verdict 2019 will definitely be about how the tail will wag the dog.