India enters the new year with a mixture of high expectations and latent apprehensions. The hope will spring from the belief that the country may well make a new political beginning after the general elections in early summer. No can say whether the present government will return to power or whether there will be a new set of rulers. But whoever wins, the political scene will not be what it was in the last four and a half years. Personalities may or may not change, but attitudes and policies will.
Moreover, in 2019, the country will once again celebrate the carnival of democracy - in which a record 865 million people vote peacefully and the final results of the general election, conducted through electronic voting machines (EVMs) and overseen by the non-partisan Election Commission of India, are largely uncontested - which is something of a rarity in this part of the world where the popular mandate is overshadowed by terror, as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or a still evolving system as in Nepal, or a virtual one-party rule as in Bangladesh and Myanmar with the army breathing down the government’s neck in Myanmar.
Until recently, Sri Lanka presented the scene of a functioning democracy notwithstanding the disturbing background of a civil war. But the recent events in the island nation, where there was a standoff between the President and the Prime Minister, showed that elements of instability lurk within the system.
India, in contrast, can be said to have come of age and can no longer be described as the example of a “functioning anarchy”, as an American ambassador once did, or a “cacophonous cauldron”, as a British high commissioner said.
Although the routine disruptions of parliamentary proceedings and the noisy discussions on news channels can give the impression to an unwary visitor that there is much truth in the earlier mocking observations, to Indians these rumbustious occurrences are par for the course. In fact, they are usually seen as signs reaffirmations of a vibrant democracy.
There is little doubt that the approaching general elections will engender more disruptive episodes in parliament and outside, not least because a major political change will be seen to be in the offing.
There is a growing perception that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not be able to repeat its performance of securing a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha (House of People or lower house of parliament) because its record of governance is not perceived to be up to the mark and its ideology of religious division is not acceptable to the larger mass of Indians.
If the BJP falls to reach the halfway figure of 272 MPs, it will have to form a coalition. But it is open to question whether the coalition will be stable.
However, the country has seen such motley combines in the past, such as that of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), but that did not prevent it from ruling for a decade (2004-14).
There is no reason to believe, therefore, that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will not be able to repeat the same feat. However, if it fails to do so, another coalition, probably a Congress-led UPA, is likely to step into its shoes.
But governance will continue without let or hindrance because India’s administrative structure of the nationwide civil services – the “bamboo frame”, as it has been called as opposed to the “steel frame” of the “heaven-born” Indian Civil Service of colonial times - have acquired adequate experience over the years to be ponderous but effective despite political uncertainties.
But even as the wheels of the administration keep turning, what will be of interest is to see whether there will be a political turnover from the present pro-Hindu BJP government, as its critics call it, to a rule by its secular opponents.
In other words, will the country witness the fall of Narendra Modi and the rise of Rahul Gandhi, or some other challenger from the non-BJP camp, or whether Modi will retain his hold on the levers of power and Rahul Gandhi (or someone else) will flatter – as by the Congress’s recent electoral successes – to deceive.
There is even a theory that if the BJP is not able win a majority on its own, but has to depend on its allies to form a government, like it did between 1999-2004, the RSS, the ideological mentors of the Hindu nationalist fraternity, might opt for a leader other than Modi to lead it as Modi's authoritarian streak makes him unacceptable to smaller parties.
Much will depend on how the two protagonists play their economic cards. Here the question of fear in the new year, as opposed to hope, creeps in. The angst of the young people is based on the mismatch between India’s image as the fastest growing economy in the world and the absence of jobs.
This spectre of unemployment has combined with agrarian distress to be of considerable cause of concern to the Modi government, raising the possibility of its defeat which was unthinkable during the euphoria of his 2014 success.
Yet, it is undeniable that the roots of the current disenchantment - and social disharmony - with Modi lie in some of the extravagant promises which he made about reviving the economy and bringing back black money from abroad.
As the phrase made famous in Bill Clinton’s time in the US – “it’s the economy, stupid !” – indicated, the faltering Indian economy is the main concern of the political class. It is all the more so because neither the BJP nor the “secular” camp appears to have an idea as to how to rectify matters.
As the loan waivers for farmers announced by the newly-formed Congress state governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh show, politicians seem to have no ideas other than quick-fix, band-aid solutions to serious economic ailments.
Loan waivers are one of them although all economists of note condemn them as palliatives which can aggravate the problem by cutting into the resources meant for public investments in the agricultural sector which can provide long-term solutions.
The same regressive mindset can be seen in the resistance to foreign investment in the retail sector, which can encourage contract farming and the construction of cold chains for perishable products, and to growing genetically modified foods which are regarded as a multinational conspiracy to destroy local crops.
There is little difference between the right-wing BJP and the other mostly left-of-centre parties in this regard. The outcome is that the economy refuses to enter the 21st century with the result that joblessness persists, leading to retrogressive demands for job reservations based on caste which will stifle merit and boost sectarian sentiments. The outcome will be a fall in standards.
Unless the political class comes to terms with the modern world of robots and artificial intelligence India, which because of its history and heritage considers itself unique, will be unable to live up to its full potential - especially in a country with huge aspirations where 50 per cent of the population of 1.3 billion are below the age of 25 - whose understanding of the concept of “zero” in ancient times revolutionized mathematics.
(The author is a writer on current affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)