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How The BJP Wins: Beyond Modi, Shah And The RSS

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By Yash Johri:

Prashant Jha of the Hindustan Times has recently written a book titled “How The BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine“. Jha has been around the country, touring with his new book – and he has most certainly, in a simplistic and conversational style, made an effort to help the people understand the machinery behind the surging political behemoth, the BJP.

Jha focuses his book on the time period after the 2014 election. The book is not one that is heavily researched in the academic sense. Although it does draw from a few scholarly articles, it is primarily based on Jha’s myriad experiences and conversations covering elections, primarily in the heartland region from 2015 onwards.

The book is divided into seven parts – each capturing an important element behind the rise and rise of the once predominantly north Indian party. Out of the seven chapters, two caught my attention – particularly because of the conspicuous differences in the party’s approach to these issues while fighting elections and governing. The first is social engineering, to create a cross-caste consolidation of voters. The second is the politics of religious polarisation. Also, these issues, particularly the second, are seen as problematic by some BJP supporters from 2014, who were sold to the acche din story, where they believed that Modi’s development agenda would overpower other forces within the party apparatus.

Read an excerpt from the book here: How Polarisation Helped BJP Win In UP

Social Engineering

From a conversation with Bhupender Yadav, Rajya Sabha MP, the author explains the trademark Amit Shah school of election management. With particular reference to Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yadav states, “See, Muslims – who are 20% – will not vote for us. Yadavs – who are about 10% – will remain loyal, largely to the SP. And Jatav Dalits – again a little more than 10 % – will be loyal to BSP. That leaves us with 55-60% of the electoral playing field, we are targeting them.” Therefore, for the political observer, it is important to keep this formula in mind and understand the BJP’s attempt at maximising its vote share out of this 55-60% of the voting population.

This essentially meant that the BJP could not continue with its earlier reliance on the traditional upper castes – it needed to incorporate new social groups now. It did so by targeting hundreds of backward communities, capitalising on the Prime Minister’s image as a pichda (backward person), as well as the non-Jatav dalits, who unlike the Jatavs, didn’t constitute Mayawati’s core voter base.

With its targets clear, Jha explains how the BJP set out to work a couple of years prior to the 2017 state elections. After evaluating the various party leadership posts, they found out that only 7% of the positions were occupied by OBCs and 3% by Dalits. Therefore, to address this issue in the spirit of continuity and change, Shah and his subordinates simply increased the number of leadership positions as opposed to replacing the traditional upper-caste leaders. We saw something similar with the additional appointment of two deputy chief ministers. At the time of the election, almost 35%-40% of the leadership positions across the state came to be occupied by OBC and Dalit leaders.

A major transformation, which signalled BJP’s commitment to such an approach was Keshav Prasad Maurya’s appointment as the state unit president, which showed the BJP’s seriousness about this strategy. An anecdote in the book from a Maurya supporter supports this proposition very well. The supporter belonging to the Saini community stated, “This time, the BJP has shown us respect. The entire samaj is with the party, because Mauryaji will become CM. The community, he said, in the past, had swung between parties,… but ever since Maurya was made the state president… it had made up its mind to stick to the lotus.” This strategy of targeting the 55%-60% of the voting population worked brilliantly for the BJP – as its vote share rose by 25% from 2012, and they attained a commanding 40% vote share in the entire state.

UP deputy CM and BJP state unit president, Keshav Maurya (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

While this strategy worked wonders for the party on the electoral battlefield, questions are still raised regarding how many positions of political importance will be given to non-traditional BJP leaders. In UP, Maurya was not made the Chief Minister (CM) and had to settle for the position of deputy CM along with the former mayor of Lucknow, Dinesh Sharma. While this strategy has reaped rich electoral dividends, if the party really wants to change its composition from one dominated by the Brahmin-Bania elite, it will need to inculcate such changes at the central level.

The senior-most Dalit minister in the Union government is the Rajya Sabha MP, Thawar Chand Gehlot – a name most people may not even have heard of. Therefore, while the BJP, as a mass organization, is undergoing change at the ground level while fighting elections, for it to maintain this same momentum going forward, it is essential that it continues to reward its ‘non-traditional’ leaders and workers with positions of importance. Given how the electoral battlefield is laid out in the eyes of Amit Shah (as stated above), in the face of religious polarisation and caste loyalties, it is only this electoral combination that will deliver the BJP continued pre-eminence.

Religious Polarisation

Yesterday evening, the Prime Minister (PM) launched the Saubhagya scheme to supply electricity to rural households as a part of the continued electrification drive. Such schemes, given that they are implemented fairly, are a great testament to the spirit of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” which the PM had campaigned on in 2014, and which he often speaks about in his public speeches.

However, on the electoral battlefield, the BJP dances to a different tune altogether, particularly discarding the Muslim vote from the initial planning phase itself. Jha explains the rationale for this, “The BJP cannot, with its current ideological framework, win elections in north and east India, from the borders of Delhi, past UP and Bihar, through West Bengal, all the way to Assam, without a strong element of communal polarization. The reason is simple. In all these states, Muslims constitute 20% or more of the population. And the party [BJP] starts with a minus 20 disadvantage – Muslims neither vote for the party, nor is the party interested in their votes.”

Should Modi and BJP be cautious of Amit Shah’s politics and strategies after all? (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The author further explains that in order to consolidate the rest of the battlefield, it needs to successfully ‘other’ the Muslim community. Many will remember Amit Shah’s statement during the Bihar elections, “If BJP loses Bihar by mistake, crackers will be burst in Pakistan” – a clear attempt to associate the Mahagatbandhan parties, who court the Muslim vote, with our north-western neighbor. While this strategy didn’t work in Bihar, where Nitish and Lalu’s combination proved a formidable obstacle to overcome, it has successfully done so in recent elections – particularly in UP where the Congress, BSP and SP were seen as having pandered excessively to these communities at the expense of their ‘Hindu’ (cross-caste) supporters.

Reconciling Governance And Electoral Strategies        

However, one of the big challenges the government faces at present is how it should reconcile its governance and electoral strategies. On one hand, numerous schemes are announced in the spirit of taking everyone forward together – but on the electoral battlefield, serious issues such as the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 as well as stories of ‘love jihad‘ are utilised to reap political rewards. According to PM’s Modi’s ‘holy book’, the Constitution of India, the government rules ‘for’ all the people – be it the largest majority or the second-largest majority.

Similarly, as demonstrated above, while the BJP is supposedly trying to be the party of the lower castes, there is scant sign of that manifesting at the leadership level in Delhi. Some supporters will argue that it takes time for such a large organisation to change – but the BJP leadership is politically adroit and can surely deploy these skills to increase the representation of lower caste people at the Centre, if it so desires.

Last week, in the question and answer session during the launch of Jha’s book at the Nehru Memorial library, many in the audience (predominantly journalists and political spokespersons) raised questions about the government’s ability to take everybody forward together. The questions betrayed an apprehension that, for the present BJP leadership, winning an election at all costs supersedes their ability and desire to work for the country’s progress.

In 2014, a large proportion of the ‘swing voters’ (socially liberal, pro-market) supported the BJP as they saw in Narendra Modi a vikas purush (a person with a focus on progress), who would direct his government and party’s primary focus on fulfilling the aspirations of the young and aspirational India – millions of whom probably exercised their right to vote for the first time. Three years later, there is a mixed verdict upon the performance of the government. While numerous progressive and structural steps have been taken, the party’s obsession with winning at all costs has most certainly diluted the 2014 message that attracted many towards its electoral platform.

Therefore, for this government to deliver to this ‘swing constituency’, it is essential that it reconciles these strategies, even though the possibilities seem bleak.

The author is presently a law student at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He is an alumnus of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He majored with a focus on China, South East Asia and India from the lens of international law, foreign policy as well as politics. He also minored in Mandarin (Chinese) and has attained proficiency. His research interests span from the South China Sea issue to China’s current involvement in Afghanistan.

While at Georgetown, Yash was a founding member of the Georgetown University India Initiative, and was the founding editor of GU India Ink, a blog dedicated to covering policy and political issues related to India from Washington DC.

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Featured image source: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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