Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This book review was first published in Pragati.
Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins, is an incisive look at how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah transformed Indian politics.
India is polarised when it comes to evaluating Narendra Modi’s performance, but unanimous on the subject of his political talent. Whether you love him or loathe him, it is clear that Modi has changed the landscape of Indian politics. This did not happen by accident. Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, aims to reveal the method behind the madness.
The BJP’s rise in the last few years has, in Jha’s words, “altered politics, created new social coalitions, dissolved older fault lines, generated new conflicts, empowered some, alienated others and is having a profound impact on state institutions.” Jha, without taking sides or getting into ideology or governance, aims to demystify the electoral machine that Modi and Amit Shah built. He does an exceptional job, travelling widely, speaking to many insiders and resisting the temptation to editorialise.
Despite being written so soon after the UP elections, which features prominently in this book, it is no quickie. It contains deep insights into how the BJP planned and executed its ascent, divided into these five areas.
One: The Narrative
Over the years, Modi has redefined himself from a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ to a ‘Vikas Purush’ to a ‘Garibon ka Neta.’ It is hard enough to build a successful brand once, but Modi has managed to redefine himself time and again, adding new layers to his appeal without losing the old ones. How does he do it? Well, consider that all of the three formulations above depend on simplistic binaries. That simplicity is the key.
Jha writes, in the context of Demonetisation, though this could hold in any other context:
[Modi] distils the most important policy decision of the times in simple, accessible terms. He frames it as a binary between right and wrong. He projects himself as the man fighting the good battle, on the side of the people, victimized by the bad guys. But while willing to fight, he also positions himself as a leader who can throw it all away, for he has no vested interests, nothing to lose. He also acknowledges the pain, but taps into the sense of righteousness, the sense of sacrifice and makes citizens feel they are participants in a great national mission, distinct from the prosaic and banal.
Jha breaks down one of Modi’s speeches in Moradabad to show how masterfully it is constructed. As contrast, he describes a speech by Rahul Gandhi in Bareilly that is not just complicated but also incoherent:
Instead of keeping the story simple, he added too many elements to it and complicated it for the crowd. After throwing in China, Himachal Pradesh, apples, Obamaji, he focussed on Bareilly’s own specialisation – this was clearly not the most effective way to explain a simple point.
Messaging matters, and Modi nailed it, not just by perfecting a simple, explicable message, but also by broadcasting it better than his opponents could manage. Consider how he continued so many of the UPA’s welfare schemes and claimed them as successes of his own administration. “Welfare delivery may or may not be sharper,” writes Jha, “but it is, as an observer put it, louder.”
Two: The Ground Game
Jha describes Modi and Shah as “ruthlessly expansionist, in terms of both territorial limits and social base.” One of the seminal moments in the BJP’s history was surely when Shah was appointed as the BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh. He asked the RSS for reinforcements, and they sent over “a rising organisation talent” Sunil Bansal. Bansal became Shah’s right-hand man, and together, they set about understanding UP.
In Bansal’s words, Shah “only got charge of UP in 2013. But within six months, he had travelled to every corner of the state. He knew issues in each region. He knew which leader fit in where.”
Shah and Bansal soon identified “six issues that were dominant in popular consciousness – law and order, women’s safety, corruption, jobs, migration and ‘appeasement.’” They narrowed this down to two, and came up with the slogan, Na gundaraj, na Bhrashtachar/ Is baar Bhajapa Sarkar.
Getting the messaging right is well and good, but how do you get it across, and how do you get people to the voting booth after that? Shah and Bansal set about revamping the organisation with stunning granularity, picking teams for each of the 147,000 booths in the state, fixing targets and responsibilities for each individual in the chain of command, including in terms of recruitment. Shah set a crazy target of getting one crore new BJP members, and “by 31 March 2015, the BJP had 1.8 crore new members in the state.” (Both the means and the number itself are dubious, but that’s part of the game.)
“Between August 2014 and March 2017,” writes Jha, “Shah travelled to almost every Indian state twice, covering over 5 lakh kilometres, to understand, supervise and direct party units.” As the chapter entitled ‘Shah’s Sangathan’ makes clear, Shah did not travel so much to micro-manage, but to put processes in place. Every cog of the machine had to function smoothly and in consonance with the others. Only then would it pull off the social engineering that Shah knew was required to win elections.
Three: Reconfiguring Caste
The chapter titled ‘Social Engineering’ is the most fascinating in Jha’s book. India votes on the basis of identity, and the caste landscape of UP seemed insurmountable for the BJP. But Shah “is slowly transforming the BJP into a party of the less privileged castes, while retaining the support of the privileged” – and UP is a fantastic case study of this.
How could the BJP move from being ‘a relatively exclusivist Hindu party’ to ‘an inclusive Hindu party’? In Jha’s words, “By identifying the most dominant political caste (which is not necessarily synonymous with the most dominant social caste) in a particular setting, and mobilizing the less dominant against them, Shah is weaving together unprecedented social coalitions.”
The calculation is simple. All Indian states are plural in their composition. With the rise of Mandal politics, assertion of OBCs and their mobilisation, the more numerically and socially dominant of these groups – from peasant backgrounds – have also become politically dominant. But precisely because of that, a range of other castes – both the traditionally powerful and the more marginalised – feel alienated. And thus, the trick is to mobilise these castes and construct a coalition against the dominant caste – which is, in the post-Mandal era, usually the numerically largest middle caste of the particular setting.
In Maharashtra, for example, the dominant political caste is the Marathas. The BJP had traditionally employed a pro-OBC strategy, and for the last assembly elections, they “stitched together an alliance of upper castes, OBCs and, to a lesser extent, Dalits.” It got 52% of the upper-caste vote and 38% pf the OBC vote – and swept to power.
In UP, Shah came up with ‘The 60% Formula.” He knew that Muslims (20% of UP’s population), Yadavs (10%, and loyal to the SP) and Jatavs (10%, loyal to the BSP) would not vote for them. That left them with “55 to 60% of the electoral playing field.” This meant upper castes, OBCs who resented the Yadavs, and Dalit sub-castes who resented the Jatavs, the elite among the Dalits who had cornered the gains of the previous BSP administration.
How would the BJP reposition itself to appeal to all these people? Its methodology had three components:
Changes in the party’s organisation structure to make it more inclusive; reformulation of its messaging, so that backward communities felt both a sense of victimhood and a sense of emancipation; and alliances with parties with a base among these communities, despite the BJP’s [recent] overwhelming dominance.
In 2014, Shah “got a quick survey done of the composition and structure of the party in UP. And to his shock, […] he discovered that among party office-bearers across the state – from Lucknow down to the district level – only 7% were OBCs and 3% were Dalits.”
This dominance of the party by Brahmans, Thakurs and Banias had been a traditional problem for the BJP. But how could the party be revamped without upsetting existing office bearers?
[Shah and Bansal] then figured a way out. The party could increase the number of positions instead of eating into the existing pie. Shah gave his go-ahead. This became the license for the party to increase positions at all levels in the party, especially for OBCs and Dalits. Twelve new office-bearers were added in each district. A hundred new members were added to the state executive committee. Those who remained office-bearers were not removed, which helped in mitigating resentment.
Within a few months, the BJP had “a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders.” As many as 34 of the 75 district presidents were OBCs, with 3 from the scheduled castes. The president of the state BJP was also an OBC: Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The BJP went beyond tokenism, though. Jha quotes Badri Narayan, a scholar on the subject, as saying:
What Kanshi Ram did for Jatavs, the RSS and BJP are doing for the rest of the Dalits. They are helping create their community leaders. They are helping document their caste histories. They are exploring heroes of their community. They are inventing and celebrating their festivals. They are placing shakhas near Dalit bastis.
The BJP applied this formula across states, and the results were overwhelming. But through all this, it did not forget its roots.
Four: The Sangh Parivar
Speaking of the BJP and RSS as separate entities might be a false dichotomy. All of the BJP’s key leaders – Modi, Shah, Bansal, Maurya – are products of the Sangh. Modi and Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, are good friends.
Jha describes the RSS campaign in 2014 – as opposed to the BJP campaign – as “a much quieter, parallel campaign […], the invisible campaign we did not see.” The main driver of this campaign was Ram Madhav, a pracharak based in New Delhi. He brought both technology and a data-driven approach to the Sangh grassroots.
Madhav started by buying Lenovo tablets for all the regional pracharaks, and training them in how to use it. Then he supplied them with “detailed constituency-wise booklets for each candidate,” prepared by Prashant Kishore’s team, and granular voter data across constituencies prepared by Rajesh Jain. “This data was then used by the Sangh to do the quiet door-to-door campaigning, and work on voter mobilisation which was critical to bringing them out on polling day at the booth level.”
After 2014, Madhav moved on to an important role in the BJP, which goes to show that the BJP is the Sangh.
That said, the Sangh made it a point to stay in the background. As an elderly, anonymous pracharak told Jha:
Let me explain it to you in another way. A parent takes care of the child, educates him, helps him settle down, provides him a home, but doesn’t go around announcing it. [As for doing visible organisation work], that is not out work. […] Our work revolves around quiet sampark, contact, on a door-to-door basis – encouraging people to vote for a leader and a party which thinks of the nation, increases India’s prestige worldwide, improves the army’s morale and believes in vikas for all.
And ah, one more thing, which is the note that Jha ends his chapter on: “The two (BJP and the Sangh) remain integrated in their quest for Hindu unity, and Hindu rule.”
Five: Hindus vs Muslims
At one point in the book, Jha is in the Lucknow office of the BJP – 800 Whatsapp groups are run from there, by the way – and tells a party leader that much of the news they spread about Muslim atrocities is fake. The reply:
Bhai saheb, that does not matter. The point is to show we are the victims. This will get Hindus angry. They will then realise they have to unite against the Muslims.
This is party strategy, and I wonder whether it reflects the bigotry of the party, or an amoral supplier’s response to the bigotry that exists in his marketplace – society itself. Jha doesn’t address this – it is a feature of the book, not a bug, that he doesn’t get side-tracked by digressions – and he lays out many of the ways in which the BJP is trying not just to bring disparate castes together, but to eventually construct a unified Hindu vote. And the way to do this is by demonising the other – the Muslims of India.
Some of this messaging is direct and to the point, as in the case of Love Jihad, Kabristan-Shamshaan and KASAB (the Congress [KA], Samajwadi party [SA] and Bahujan Samaj Party [B], their enemies in UP). Some of it is via proxies, such as the Anti-Romeo squads (“actually the Anti-Salman Squad”) and the gauraksha rhetoric, which hit out at Muslim livelihoods. All of it is meant to construct a simplistic Hindu-Muslim binary, and thus consolidate the Hindu vote.
It has worked. Jha writes of how a newly elected BJP MLA from UP explained his victory: “It was an India-Pakistan election.”
The Challenge Ahead
Jha ends his book with chapters on the BJP’s spread beyond North India and musings on its future. The key challenge before the BJP is this: their expanded electoral base means that they now represent multitudes, and contain contradictions. How long can the BJP claim to represent the interests of such a diverse collection of people? Surely at some point, something will give.
The largeness of the BJP’s social coalition holds an opportunity for the opposition, which is blowing it. Here’s what Jha writes about Rahul Gandhi (early in the book, and not in this context):
Rahul Gandhi did not appeal to the Lucknow Bania, he did not appeal to the Gorakhpur Thakur, he did not appeal to the Moradabad Dalit, he did not appeal to the Bundelkhand Brahman, he did not appeal to the Allahabad Kushwaha, he did not appeal to the Muzaffarnagar Jat, he did not appeal to the Saharanpur Saini. He did not appeal to the rich trader, he did not appeal to the middle-class teacher, he did not appeal to the young man who works as a taxi driver in Delhi and had returned home to vote, he did not appeal to the farmer with marginal landholdings, he did not appeal to the woman who was below the poverty line, he did not appeal to a college student now ready for the job market.
In other words, Gandhi is the opposite of Modi, diminishing the Congress as much as Modi and Shah have grown the BJP. Things change very fast in politics, of course, and nothing can be taken for granted. The BJP can be beaten – but before that, one must understand how they won to begin with. Jha’s book is an excellent guide.
Here’s a thought…
While reading Jha’s book, I was filled with awe for the BJP’s election machine. And it struck me, what if Modi and Shah put as much effort into governance as they do into campaigning? This country would be transformed. But they won’t – and it’s worth reflecting on why that is the case.
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