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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.