As the dust and din settles temporarily in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the countdown to the General Elections in 2019 has ensued in earnest, and 2018 is poised to be the ‘narrative setting’ year to sharpen the pitch and promises by all political parties.

The party leadership and chief strategists would be huddled and licking their recent wounds, as the counter-portents of ‘electoral’ and ‘moral’ victories have basically left both the BJP and the Congress 15-20 seats short of nirvana position to rightfully claim to be battle-ready for 2019.

The slicing and dicing of political imponderables like increased voter percentages and yet reduced total number of seats (e.g. Gujarat), the inexplicable defeats of sitting ministers and party warlords, and worse, a chief ministerial candidate and party chief biting the dust when the party romps home in Himachal Pradesh – will trigger hard introspections and recalibrations in the ultimate run-up to 2019.

The contours and content of the various political positions, spiels and spins were deployed in the recent state elections, and the fundamentals would essentially remain the same in the last-lap year, albeit, assuming ‘national’ scale and resonance, shriller and more polarising tonality and even more accusative phraseology and innuendoes.

Long-termism will be the immediate casualty, and ‘competitive populism’ will rule the print, screens and airwaves. Nothing would be sacrosanct or spared, and the altar-of-basic-instincts will override civilisational decency, historical rectitude and institutional decorum to ensure that the ‘winner takes it all’.

There will be stodgy official lines and banalities that will be deliberately flanked with extreme ‘individual opinions’, which can still allow the option of plausible official deniability and the lame tactic of ‘disowning the statement’, yet, drawing the blood and hitting the intended targets. No one will be beyond range, and the fire could come from any official quarter or individual mavericks – an unquestionable method to madness will be at play.

A 5000 year old civilization will reaffirm its roots with religiosity, traditions (both progressive and regressive) and with the unique bane of Indian politics and divisiveness, i.e. castes. Religious contexts and passions with elaborate shade cards e.g. ‘hard’-Hindutva, ‘soft’-Hindutva etc. would define the postured palette with mandatory trips to Temples, Gurudwaras, Churches and Sufi Shrines – who wears the skull cap and who doesn’t, who throws the Iftar party and who doesn’t etc. will convey the intended signals to the relevant audiences.

Every little colour, cloth and dinner invite will be psychoanalysed, postulated and presented fairly or creatively to suggest truths, half-truths and blatant lies. Sifting the wheat from the chaff will be difficult as the best spin-doctors in business, social media whiz-kids and backroom analysts will numb and titillate the senses simultaneously, all towards political hypnotisms that will make the voter press the intended button on the EVM.

Old ghosts, imagined ghosts and providential genies will make a mandatory comeback – Bofors, Babri Masjid, 2G, ‘Jijaji’, Reservations, Pappu, Gappu etc. will reenter the drawing room lexicon. However, Pakistan will be the most invoked bop-back-clown in the pack that will determine the martial spirit of the various political parties – who moved the biryani and who was able to ‘send shivers down in Islamabad’, will be fervently defended? Track-II will be buried, the doves will hibernate and the hawks will fly brazenly.

Surrogate political muscularity via the ‘Indian soldier’, can never be ruled out. ‘America First’ will have its Indian version and the seductive imagery of India in the ‘next five years’ will ruse the cadres and political evangelists into a whipping frenzy. ‘Competitive concern’ will be imposed, no accident or misery worth its salt and perverse-intensity will deserve a miss, flocks of wailing politicos will descend on ground-zero’s to empathise, sympathise and above all, photo-op’ise!

No more fears of ‘hard economics’ like demonetisation or GST can be risked again, on the contrary feel-good sops like tax benefits, higher MSP’s for farmers, loan write-offs, generous ‘packages’ for states etc. can be expected in the windfall times. A few bad apples may finally feel the jail beds in a quest to ‘clamp down on corruption’, and the other matters of morality will acquire Gandhian proportions and espousing concerns.

All parties will claim their shirts and souls to be whiter than the other’s, yet, they will continue pleading ‘political conspiracy’ or ‘matter sub-judice’ to explain the visible taints on their own. Tactical revisionist dreams of a bygone era will be provocatively contextualised, however they will tempered with elements of irrefutable modernity – in a de rigeur ode to ‘youthfulness’ (read, first-time voters). The NRI-armies will start preparing their itineraries, presentations and collection-drives to fill the financial, emotional and manual requirements of electoral campaigning.

The media will strictly iron-fence their voice in consonance with the approved editorial tilts, with ‘independent-opinion’ taking a firm backseat. Hazy CD’s and ‘leaks’ by ‘unconfirmed sources’ will abound. International agencies and their statistical data will be selectively flung at each other when convenient, and lampooned when inconvenient. Divergent and incompatible ideologies may converge, and the ‘larger good of the nation’ will be the prevailing flavour to explain ‘rainbow coalitions’. The thin-line between personal and professional will evaporate, as indeed, between fact and fiction as ultimately, the ends will justify all means.

Sadly, the grinding curse of poverty, societal inequities and rural stress will be inadequately addressed with sugar-coated sops and marketing placebos towards a future that is destined to be ‘India’s pride and neighbour’s envy’.

More thunderous announcements of welfare transformation schemes with unimaginable funding and promised impact will fuel the cadre arguments, no data pertaining to the real-life efficacy of the existing or previously announced schemes will be tolerated and an impromptu tag of ‘anti-national’ afforded on anyone, who so dares. George W Bush’s immortal ‘with us or against us’ tone will be the mantra for the short-fuse of binary positions, any person expressing slightest disagreement within will be castigated a ‘disloyal soldier of the party’.

The ultimate tragedy is that the worst instincts, impatience and intolerance of each other will be at full display – and no party will essentially differ in sound or content from the other, barring the levels of severity, sarcasm and decibels.

Brace yourself to be closeted with one party or the other – as NOTA is still a miniscule percentage in the narrative forming scheme of things, lined-up in 2018.

(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)