India in 2019: Elections, economics and the world's biggest pilgrimage

By NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

(CNN) - This year brought big changes to Indian society. The Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex and scrapped an outdated adultery law, both relics of the colonial past, while the #MeToo movement finally arrived in a country notorious for sexual violence against women.

Economic growth recovered and then slowed over 2018, while millions were hit by record-breaking floods.

The new year looks poised to be even more eventful. Here are four major developments to watch over the coming 12 months.

A high-stakes election

The next general election must be held by May 2019 -- and it could be a much closer race than many had predicted just a month ago.

Four years ago, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a record-breaking victory, winning the strongest popular mandate in three decades. Congress, which had ruled India for much of its post-independence history, suffered its worst ever tally of seats in the national parliament.

At the start of this year, Modi might have been expected to repeat the feat in 2019. But recent results from key state elections suggest the tide may be turning: the BJP lost power to Congress in three major states, surprising many political observers.

Modi's supporters argue that the Prime Minister remains the country's most popular leader, and that the results of state elections don't automatically translate to national level.

But for his opponents, the state results were a much-needed shot in the arm: for the first time in years, they sense an opportunity to strike a blow against Modi, long seen as the favorite for 2019.

Despite relatively high rates of GDP growth, joblessness remains a major problem for many young Indians, and signs of distress in the still vast rural economy have been growing over the course of the year.

This has all put Modi on the back foot entering the new year, and the election promises to be a real contest.

Economy set to grow, even as millions struggle to find work

2019 could be the year when India finally leapfrogs the UK and France to become one of the world's five biggest economies, according to the Center for Economics and Business Research, a London-based think tank.

It was meant to happen in 2018 until the country's currency took a hit -- and the CEBR says it could still be delayed to 2020.

But even as its GDP expands, India grapples with a continuing jobs crisis. Unemployment has been rising steadily since the summer of 2017, according to the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, and experts say the problem is particularly bad in the north of the country. Even as jobs grow scarcer, an estimated 12 million young people enter the workforce every year.

No wonder ordinary people are feeling gloomier about their prospects of finding work in 2019. A November consumer confidence survey by the central bank showed that almost a third of those questioned across major cities expect the situation to worsen over the coming year.

More controversy over a divisive citizenship registry

Back in June, almost 4 million people in the northeastern Indian state of Assam found that their names had been left off a controversial citizenship register -- raising fears about their legal status.

The draft of the National Register of Citizens was published amid a growing political focus on migration into Assam from Bangladesh. For right-wing proponents of the policy, including prominent BJP members, the register is a way to identify illegal immigrants. But numerous critics -- among them Modi's political opponents and international human rights organizations -- warn it could lead to discrimination and even violence as millions are stigmatized and labeled outsiders in their own homes.

"It is possible that the process will arbitrarily deprive people, who have lived in India for decades, of their nationality," Amnesty International said, warning that a significant number of people could be rendered stateless.

The controversy is set to extend into 2019: following the publication of the draft, authorities have opened an appeals process, allowing those who've been left off the list to prove their citizenship status. The window for appeals closes at the end of this year, with a "verification process" due to start in mid-February.

The world's largest gathering of religious pilgrims

From January through March, more than 100 million people are expected to attend the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious gathering. Worshippers from around the world will take a holy dip at the spot marking the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers with the mythical Saraswati waterway in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The festival has been recognized by UNESCO as the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth.

For the 2019 event, authorities are erecting a mini city of more than 4,000 tents to house visitors, while around a thousand CCTV cameras are being installed to monitor crowds and ensure safety. Key infrastructure is also being spruced up, with nine railway stations being upgraded and a new airport terminal being built.

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