Narendra Modi, who won a historic mandate in 2014 to become the prime minister of India heading a majoritarian government after a gap of three decades, will be facing another tough year of electoral challenges in 2018. As many as eight states in the country will go to the polls in the next 12 months before Modi goes to the big general elections scheduled next year. The year 2017 was electorally satisfactory for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it formed a government of its own in the key state of Uttar Pradesh and also clung on to power in the PM’s home state of Gujarat but there remained some chinks in the saffron party’s armour and the PM and his lieutenant Amit Shah will look to get rid of them in the next set of electoral battles this year.
Of the eight states going to elections this year, the BJP is in power in four (of its own in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and in alliance in Nagaland) while its rival Congress in three states, including Meghalaya, Mizoram and its remaining big bastion of Karnataka. The other one, Tripura, is being ruled by the Left Front. Modi will be looking to win some of the states where it is yet to taste power, particularly the few that still remain under the Congress’s rule for a Congress-free India is what it has been striving hard over the years.
The four north-eastern states will be interesting to watch this election year even though that part of India generally doesn’t fetch much electoral attraction. The reason is the BJP’s growing clout in the north-east which is a strategic region considering its geography and economic potential. The BJP has come to power in a number of states in the north-east and if it can grab a few more states there, it regional dynamics could see a big change in the near future.
If 2018 goes spectacularly well for Modi, then the analysts will certainly forecast him getting a second term in office in 2019. It would in a way seal the fate of the Congress, India’s traditional powerhouse, which is aiming for a resurgence under its new president Rahul Gandhi. Modi’s stature in India’s domestic politics will grow bigger and his opponents will virtually be written off, something several pundits have been predicting ever since Modi stormed to power in 2014.
If Modi finishes strong in 2018-19, the impact will be visible on India’s foreign policy as well
But apart from the domestic politics, it will be interesting to see how a stronger Modi goes about in conducting his South Asia policy if the next 18 months turn out to be his time. Modi had made a great start in his neighbourhood policy moves but it is said he could not carry on with the momentum as time progressed. He had invited all the neighbouring states to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 and also visited countries like Bhutan and Nepal after becoming the PM. He had taken a special initiative at the Saarc Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014 despite obstructions created by Pakistan. The idea of motor vehicle agreement was floated so that the opportunity for South Asian integrity was not lost. The Modi government also took care of improving relations with Maldives and Sri Lanka – the two maritime neighbours India has in South Asia. Focus was also put on Afghanistan, the newest member of the Saarc, so that India’s strategic clout gained weight.
But despite these initiatives, Modi’s journey wasn’t as smooth as he had expected it. There were problems with Nepal over its new constitution; the stand-off with China at Doklam did not leave its old friend Bhutan entirely assured; the lack of progress over a river water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh because of internal political reasons left the government frustrated while fear loomed over losing Maldives and Sri Lanka to an influential China. Modi’s neighbourhood policy gradually became synonymous with a policy to counter China’s entry in South Asia. This in a way affected India’s natural bonding with its neighbours with which it has shared historical relations and Modi now needs to diversify New Delhi’s relations with the smaller neighbours instead of always reacting to the elephant in the room -- China.
Can 2018 be for Modi what 2017 was for Xinping?
Just like 2017 was the year of President Xi Jinping in China as he emerged as one of the country’s most powerful statesman in many years, PM Modi also could witness the same in 2018 and 2019 if his party succeeds in winning several of the upcoming electoral challenges. And if that happens, Modi, like Jinping, would require to come up with a fresh stance, especially in matters of foreign affairs and more particularly, in issues pertaining to India’s neighbours.
If BJP wins more power in north-east, India’s neighbour policy could see a boost
If the BJP does well in the north-east, it would enable the Modi government in New Delhi to execute a uniform policy to improve the ground reality in that economically backward region by means of joining hands with the bordering countries through trade. If the BJP can win power in more states in the north-east, one can expect smoother trade cooperation with countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, especially the latter which is surrounded on three sides by states of the north-east. A uniform electoral result in favour of the BJP can see Modi’s neighbourhood policy getting a boost. On the other hand, if the BJP fails to meet the high expectations, then Modi’s authority will be perceived as one which is weakened. For New Delhi which is facing foreign policy challenges in its backyard of late, it will not be a happy news.