We wish everyone in our family, our neighbourhood, our city, our country, the region and globally, each and everyone. A happy and healthy new year ahead! As we increasingly realise how we are becoming inter-dependent upon each other, every life matters, it is a common good we are chasing. Yet, we are daunted by the innumerable ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, the uncertainty of triggers around us? Overall, we live on hope, in the benevolence of the gods we worship, as ultimately there can only be only ONE God. Let us hope we can give HIM a new common name, and worship him. Meanwhile, we look back at the year gone by, look at some of the signal milestones and pray for an all round better and happier new year.
This last month has been nothing short of being explosive. Signalling an end to 2023, in a not too happy note. Too many events, issues, and rancour on the national scene. Gaali galoch was finding new levels, lower than ever before. And, if you thought once we had reached the nadir, there was a still lower level the next time. There was talk of a further decline in democracy, what played out was a record suspension of MPs in Parliament, a sizzling century plus, akin to the exploits of Virat Kohli and his like. Ironically, with no opposition present, the government passed some important notifications, new laws, with least discussion. Rivalries have erupted over the year like never before. We can only hope that saner voices prevail, some new guidelines in public discourse can emerge, leading to healthy debates and useful conversations.
The year was an eventful one, with its ups and downs. A good time to look back, look ahead, muse over our unique times in the history of our nation, and globally as well.
Elections in the Five States:
First, not to forget the results in the five states, listed as the semi-finals before the 2024 general elections. While the results were decidedly in favour of the BJP, is it safe to conclude 2024 is a done deal? Opinions would differ; witness the last-minute change in the fortunes in Chhattisgarh? A view gathering momentum is that much changed in the last five days. Witness the Rajasthan debacle for the Congress – did the unity within the party hold on till the last? There is much ahead that can help the BJP in the next few months, while it also depends upon how much the Opposition can close ranks?
Compromised politicians can buckle down last minute and there are many around; who can stay the ground, only time will tell. Opposition alignments hold the key. In politics, especially in India, there is never any certainty. For the present, the winds are in huge favour for the ruling party, with Modi ji heading for a third term, with a majority on their own, even possibly with a bigger number, as the party lays claim to over 400! Really speaking, there are few other winds, though one does get to feeling a low current now and then! Eventually, for a healthy democracy, we need a strong opposition, both in voices and also in numbers.
On looking back, PM Modi won in three states, triumphantly. That exit surveys showed otherwise, pundits opined otherwise, no one thought this wise. This time there were no big pre-result shouts like we will get so many, etc. But there was war on the ground, active campaigning like possibly not seen before. Between the two, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, there was no rest day, it was 24×7! Hard work has no substitute. Is the Opposition ready to put in this hard work?
A change in tack from the BJP. There was no CM face, defying all logic that had been spun on us for quite some time. In fact, both the front-line states, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan had more than one face; the PM was the face upfront. It was an act apart, it was win or lose; he is banking upon his appeal to the masses, but will the voter in the deep South respond as did the voter in the heartland? Only time will tell.
The choice of the three CMs is another story on how the ruling party will change horses in the new year. Choosing leaders with ‘zero’ baggage. Zero in all its manifestations. The rest follows automatically. The mandate is about the same as practised in Goa and in Uttarakhand, new faces as CMs, people with strong RSS backgrounds, loyal to the core, even if they are less experienced in governance. We can expect some more to get dropped in 2024 for the general elections, new faces all over the country in choice of BJP nominees. The least baggage you carry, the more chance you have to be among the chosen ones.
The Congress has been slow in weeding out their deadwood. The results are there to see. In this context, the losses in the three states have started the churn; within two weeks, Madhya Pradesh has a new face. Will they continue this churning? The new look Congress that Rahul Gandhi promised, is yet to register, even as President Kharge is making the right impression.
G20 elevated Modi’s and India’s stature with the common man
Through the year, the G20 narrative played on, in full gusto. In over 50 cities, that saw different shades of makeover, some very real, some marginal, but they did. In fact, if you put aside the potted plants, there was much to see in Delhi. Then, there was the summit. It is all very well to cry this happened too, 40 years ago, or even longer past in history. The fact is that this happened now! Never before in our instant recall, we have played host to such a distinguished gathering. PM Modi did rub shoulders with the global leadership. It was ‘Bharat Mandapam’, our own run down Pragati Maidan that played host to global leadership, in a well-orchestrated event, signalling a new high for convention tourism for the country.
Is there a possibility that select media and intelligentsia has preferred to consider most of this as propaganda and photo-ops; while the average voter has seen it otherwise; let us say, was impressed. Regardless, the gains of the G20 summit at present stand forgotten, as domestic politics and the focus on the general elections have garnered top-most attention.
We did spend much in time, effort and resources on the G20 presidency. The G20 agenda is a global agenda, equally subscribed by the global south, just as much as by India. It is development oriented, keeping in mind the diverse challenges that we face going forward. How can we adopt these goals, with another name, as goals going forward, for us as India, and the global south? Much homework was done on the eight verticals, and these can possibly serve as goals for an India going forward, along with the global south!
The trapped miners in the tunnel showed a caring government!
Through most of the polling dates, for the five states, the rescue efforts were in full swing. There was suspense of a high order, bated breaths fearing the worst, hoping for the best, more than a billion prayers at work. Unfortunate and scary as it was, it was a caring government, putting out a new standard out there in full public gaze, saying every life mattered. The operation was not entirely smooth, with one effort being ditched after another, as the story moved on. It was finally not machines alone but the ingenuity of man that bailed us out. Heroic rat-hole surgeries worked. More importantly, one hopes this has set a new standard in disaster management in the country, putting a wider arc of rescue managers into the mould. A timely thumping acknowledgement of the Rat Miners, Indian Army, NDRF and civil administration would further uplift the national sentiment.
It served, ironically, well for redefining our goals, revising our onsite strategies, in road building especially in the hills. We gather at least a few national highways have been reverted to just two-lane instead of the ambitious 4-lane. More checks and balances have been imposed. Can we put more realistic targets in terms of time taken to complete these? Over zealous time frames provide the risk to cutting on safety and security, we land up compromising quality. Somewhere, we also need more global expertise, proved elsewhere where conditions are somewhat similar, to be available when we plan these activities. There is concrete talk of revising the SOPs, with an acknowledgement that some of the rules were overlooked by the implementing agencies.
Are the Minorities seeking ‘equal’ benefits, minus the fear?
There has been a long debate, an ongoing story that minorities are being targeted. There have been incidents for sure, some harrowing to the bones. Every effort, every initiative has been extended to ALL sections, regardless of religion or caste. DBT and UTI are the notable game changers, going out to all, not to only one community alone. Is there a chance, that minorities themselves don’t want to be singled out? They want equal benefits, not doles. That they too want to feel respected, as equal citizens. Equal is the word – in opportunities, in schemes, in sports and in community services. Yes, they do feel targeted, there is a sense of fear among them; it is awful dread and fear, some real and some imaginary. They would rather break free into the mainstream! There is a counter narrative started by a hopeful few, that the fear should be addressed, and taken care of. Minorities need a warm embrace, solid and genuine. Not only must we be fair, we must also appear to be fair. It is important to ensure such fears are addressed to ensure an inclusive growth. In the emerging global canvas, a strong and united India means equal opportunity and equal respect to each and every citizen. A strong India is a unified and bold Indfia.
Double engine talk making sense, the infra push in Uttar Pradesh, more specifically
Slogans apart, whatever else apart, there is roll out of major infra push. In fact, it is generally agreed that it is the government capex that has carried the wheels of progress, kept the wheels of the economy moving. Often it is said, that all this too is propaganda, even the slogan, but there is a strong visibility on the ground, as well. That the figures are not real. If it is not 100%, it is 60%. But it is there. There is also a contra story playing out, never mind how, why and by whom. The fact is that in numerous states, with non-BJP governments, the governor and the elected government are at odds. See what a mess we have made in Delhi. The fight in Kerala is turning ugly. But the double engine has worked well in UP; the PM is there every other day, declaring one or the other facility.
Ayodhya and the Ram Temple are closer to the common man.
This too, is working. That we are now in close proximity to the date of temple opening, there is calibrated news of developments, that Ayodhya is indeed a proud new pilgrimage. It is coming true. And it is the PM who is making it happen. And, it matters to the Hindi heartland! The BJP could well say, another promise delivered. The first rushes of the temple complex, the new look city and the first test flights at the newly constructed airport augur well for what is being seen as a greenfield development, the Hindu answer to the Vatican. In terms of its visitor appeal, Ayodhya has the promise to become a global tourist attraction, in the years ahead.
Ayodhya and the Ram Temple belong to everybody. That is how Lord Ram would have imagined this temple to be.
The economy is doing well, India is holding on well
Government schemes are in fact filtering down to make their impact. And why not? In this global confusion where wars are taking place, numerous economies are buckling down, we are holding on. The aspiring Indian growth story, regardless of whether it is 6 or 7% GDP growth, is in real terms happening. Petrol prices have remained steady, inflation has been under check. Banks are showing better results, NPAs are getting sorted out.
Fight against Corruption
So, while we can get pre-occupied with raids of ED and CBI and think these will suck the system, how much do they impact this common man? He sees these raids as upon the corrupt. Timing may be wrong for some, right for others. Troubling as they may be, they are calling out the right notes against corruption in high places, just when the voter is making up his mind where to cast his vote. These are within the law, for the present, their narrative is working well for the ruling party with the PM’s vitriolic attacks on the corrupt. The truth is also well known. That there are far too many compromised politicians in our system, never mind how holy and pious they may want to appear.
SC stamp on the abrogation of Article 370
Forget history for a moment. Overlook what the constitution says, for a moment. It has been a transparent agenda for the ruling party ever since it came to power. With an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, a first in 30 years, the ruling BJP took upon itself the task to remove the extra cover provided to the state. How else could it have been achieved? Through discussion and dialogue? Was this possible? Through a passing of a decision in the state assembly? Is that conceivable, with so many anti-national stage actors on the scene? Others, who would lose their political pillars on which they stand, if they endorsed the abrogation? If they do not oppose Article 370, they cede/ lose their ground totally. They may as well then retire which they wouldn’t like to. In the last four years, as one gathers, quality of life in the valley has indeed improved. The doles are reaching out to where they matter, to the people. And, tourism, the litmus test, has gone shooting to the skies. Hotel rates, occupancies and new developments have witnessed never before levels. In the words of Mushtaq Chayya, a prominent hotelier with 16 properties, some rubbing shoulders with international chains, a few with foreign labels, endorsed the common perception that tourism permeates through life in the valley – it is the biggest and most respectable employment generator. The valley has witnessed relative peace and progress, on the ground, let politicians say what they want. Chayya says the man on the street is tired of unrest, wants only peace and freedom to work and grow.
The fact is that with this removal, the government hopes to win on both fronts – show the country that it has delivered a promise. And, to the state, offer a livelihood free from civil unrest. There is no going back, only looking ahead.
A 100+ MPs suspended
A new record of suspensions signifying a new trend in Indian politics. It’s a new nadir in the annals of Indian democracy. Both sides will belt out their own versions. The opposition was seeking only a statement on the breach of security, while the PM can give interviews to newspapers, he is not willing to speak in Parliament. Unruly scenes, undemocratic display of defiance and opposition, the speaker considered it safer to suspend the ‘mob’. Seems a narrative that has become all too common. Interestingly, while the opposition was protesting in Parliament, another opposition (this time, BJP) was protesting in the Delhi Assembly. The black book is the same, with no difference. Included among them, separately, was the sprightly Mahua Moitra, who made waves through the year, and promises to remain centre stage in the new year. She could be a bright star for the opposition, but she may have to tread her steps more carefully.
With 2024 general elections looming large, it is going to be a tough ride ahead. A more decisive result may prove useful, as otherwise we may get thrown into uncertainties that we as a nation cannot afford at this time of global churning. Let us hope, wiser counsel will prevail and contests can take shape in more dignified and best parliamentary traditions.
Is the country increasingly getting insulated from politics?
Truth is becoming a first casualty, with social media barraging one video after another. Over and above, the economy is playing out well. Basic amenities are also rolling out, at the grassroot levels. Corporate culture is gaining ground, cheque book culture; happy to work, grow and enjoy life. The young generation is hard at work, bringing out the big change in Indian society. This is also insulated from which party is in power. This insulation is even more prominent in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, mirroring India’s growth story. Our economy will continue to grow at 5/6/7 percent. An aspirational India is at cross roads, determined to succeed. So, the consuming public, the public sentiment will win the day, and possibly 2024 will only strengthen this national trend.
Has India’s time come?
Yes, we are on the cusp. But we are not there, yet. We have more than the promise. Real promise with many of the cylinders raring to go. But too many spoilers on the scene, just as much. In the past, too, for one reason or the other, we have missed our chances. Let us face it, not everybody will be happy for our success. And, we must be focussed on our goals, stay united on the course. Not every issue and concern need to become politics. Conversely, we need to bring on board every member of our society, rich or poor, this caste and the other, this colour or the other, on this aspirational drive to growth with fair and transparent governance.
Its like cricket for us. We fritter away our chances. After a successful ten on ten in the World Cup, we lost out tamely in the final. It is the hype that builds pressure, the world’s best team becomes not good enough. Witness the debacle in the first test against South Africa. Rather, we should get down to some hard work and become real, smell the coffee. Our time has come but to realise the potential, we will need to put in the hard work, the perseverance that is required of us. All the successful nations have decades of hard work behind them.
Disquiet in the neighbourhood!
Too many cross currents in our immediate vicinity threaten dark clouds, shades of grey. We have stepped up our defence preparedness but we have miles to go. Decades of complacency have left us behind, and here too, we have a catch-up game to play. Deft diplomacy combined with shrewd captaincy, capacity building while forging strong partnerships can hold us steady. Testing times are ahead because each neighbour has its own internal forces at work, their own political compulsions; who can pull the trigger, why and when, is anybody’s guess.
On the diplomatic front, global relations are increasingly becoming a tight-rope act. After the alarm raised by Canada, then came a similar refrain from the US, though we had thought this unlikely. Then came the Biden withdrawal from being the chief guest on Republic Day. Judiciously replaced with Macron, with a five-day trip by Jaishankar to Russia, followed by Putin’s invite to his friend Modi to visit him. Fast paced developments that promise a new year with global uncertainties, where multi-level engagements promise to be the new order.
Therefore, there is much happening for the good, some not. We need to recognize both, equally, without making everything about politics. In all this talk of India and Bharat, is there any real contradiction at all? Is it true that much of Indian politics so far has been dictated by the elite in the capital? Is there the possibility that while this elite continue their elevated discourse, such discourse is steadily getting divorced from the reality on the ground. That the average Indian is indeed, the man in the hinterland, and this is where the story of modern Indian will truly unravel. While we sit engrossed in arm chair politics, in the confines of Lutyens’ Delhi, is there actually a different narrative playing down there! ‘Inclusive’ is the key to growth, there are no compromises. India will have to embrace more and more of Bharat, the twain must meet.
No doubt, there would be, indeed, some ‘real’ issues that pre-occupy the minds of the intelligentsia – democracy, civic rights and liberties, freedom of the press, ED raids and so on. These too matter. A strong government that delivers and holds the country together, in the ‘real’ sense is our answer and hope, possibly matters more. 2024 will not be like every other year, it would be different, and difficult. The need of the hour is not only to grow, but equally to stay united. To hold our dignity, ensure rule of law, hold our head high among the comity of nations. To then, inspire genuine admiration and respect.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India, over five decades has edited publications like CityScan, India Debates and Travel Trends Today. He is the founder of SATTE, India’s first inbound tourism mart, biggest in Asia.