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Bharatiya Janata Party: The world’s biggest electoral machine

With the opposition in disarray, the saffron party poll behemoth is moving smoothly – never mind general elections are two years away; mobilization of interest groups and booth management efforts are underway in full swing as is the momentum. Is there anything that can stop the BJP juggernaut?

August 08, 2022 / 04:40 PM IST
Representative Image (PTI)

Representative Image (PTI)

There is a good reason why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power in 18 states out of 28, and has more than 400 members in  Parliament, and 1,300 legislators in state assemblies.

Driving the party is a ‘here and now' approach. There is no room for political complacency – with an energetic prime minister who communicates with the people directly, there is simply no other option for the karyakartas (workers).

From the easy-paced, laid-back Westminster style of governance that dominated India’s centrist politics for a better part of the last seven decades, it is a dynamic right-wing push that is dictating the frenetic pace of statecraft now.

Badri Narayan, social historian, columnist, and professor at G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, offers an interesting insight.

“I have studied political parties around the world. There is no political party like the BJP anywhere, which is working for elections two years in advance as well as governing, both at the same time. It is a mega political machine in every sense,” Narayan told Moneycontrol.

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He added: “This is the kind of system which will help any political party; it will certainly help the BJP fight the 2024 elections.”

In the valedictory session of an unprecedented two-day joint national executive committee of BJP’s seven national frontal organisations in Patna on July 31, home minister Amit Shah said the BJP will face the 2024 parliamentary elections under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and form the government for a third successive time.

A full two years before the country heads to general elections in 2024, the party is already in poll mode. Shah, who is close to Modi, said the charisma of the prime minister and the work done by the central government will help the party win more seats in the next parliamentary elections than it did in 2019.

Elections vs. ideology 

Manisha Priyam, the senior academic and researcher, who holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Moneycontrol: “The BJP under Narendra Modi is an electoral party, more than an ideological one. It takes every election very seriously, not just the Lok Sabha polls. Whether it is the Presidential elections, zila parishad or panchayat polls or any local body elections anywhere. There are a few setbacks, but they gain in the long run. They may have lost Bengal, but they are not letting go, as is evident in the selection of Jagdeep Dhankar as vice-president. For the BJP, the route to politics is through elections, and who can possibly object to a political party trying to win elections.”

The BJP, Priyam also pointed out, is also not choosy about who it accepts. It can incorporate Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, Jitin Prasada in UP and Jyotiraditya Scindia, all Congress stalwarts. So where does ideology come into the picture here?

And, while opposition parties are busy picking up the pieces of their reputations, torn asunder by the Enforcement Directorate’s investigations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, the BJP seems to be galloping ahead.

The July 31 meeting of the seven wings of the BJP – farmers, youth, Other Backward Classes, Economically Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes –in Patna was attended by 700 delegates and gave the ruling party at the centre a headstart in the 2024 campaign.

In April this year, the party had already set up a four-member task force to undertake an exercise to strengthen the party’s presence across nearly 74,000 booths where it feels there is scope for improvement.

The four senior BJP functionaries assigned to undertake the mammoth exercise include national general secretary CT Ravi, national vice-presidents Baijayant Panda and Dilip Ghosh, and party’s SC Morcha chief Lal Singh Arya, a senior party leader, told journalists.

“Over the next three months beginning May, this team will travel and cover every assembly and Lok Sabha seat that the BJP currently holds. In collaboration with the state and district functionaries, they will also cover those 100 Lok Sabha seats where the BJP did not win, to improve the party’s performance,” the leader explained.

That’s important for the party to expand its political footprint, to offset any possible reverses in its strongholds.

The backdrop 

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party won 208 seats in just eight states, adding 142 seats to the number it had won in 2009. The gains were strongest in the Hindi-speaking belt and in the more developed regions of western India. Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi added significantly to its final tally.

In five other states, the party won 50 seats, either maintaining or consolidating its seat share. These included Karnataka, Assam, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh. The BJP also managed to seize all constituencies from incumbents in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand.

Yet, seven major states resisted the rise of the saffron power, restricting the party to eight Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Kerala, and Punjab. In the Northeast - excluding Assam - the party could win only one.

Even so, the magnitude of the BJP's success in 2014 and the momentum it generated in its wake by galvanizing the ever-growing army of karsevaks (volunteers) propelled the party to no less than 16 state assembly election victories between October 2014, expanding its control, either on its own or in alliance, to 21 states by March 2018 from just five in 2013!

In terms of tactics, the party was entirely flexible, willing to experiment and manoeuvre at every stage. In none of the states did it announce a chief ministerial candidate. The party’s campaign, built on Modi and his call for corruption-free politics, fetched the party impressive dividends.

Immediately after its historic triumph in the UP assembly elections of 2017, it started gearing up for the 2019 general elections. Modi asked party MPs to fan out to their constituencies, to spread the good word about the government.

Amit Shah asked MPs to ensure that the party got more seats than in 2014 and that is the way it turned out.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP received 37.36% of the vote, the highest share for any political party since the 1989 general election, and won 303 seats, adding to its majority. In addition, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 353 seats

Ashwini Mahajan, national co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the RSS, deals with economic issues, particularly those that are linked to the party's integration with the global economy, told Moneycontrol: “Our nation is perpetually in the election mode. There are polls held all the time at various levels. Yet, looking at political parties, I cannot spot one that espouses ideological causes. BJP talks about nationalism and people who flock to its rallies and programmes are not necessarily affiliated to the party. Yet they come and from them flows the energy that empowers BJP leaders.”

Mission 2024 

While organizing battle flanks for 2024, as it did in Patna last week, could be considered par for the course, the BJP’s booth management lies at the heart of its highly successful poll-winning strategy.

According to SC Morcha’s Arya, most of the booths where the BJP was on a weak wicket have been identified based on the outcome of the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections

“A large number of these booths are scattered in West Bengal, where it has improved, but include states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Kerala, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, where the party did not do as well as expected,” SC Morcha’s Arya said in an obvious understatement.

The party’s inroads into South India have been less than spectacular - apart from Karnataka and Pondicherry where it is in power, the BJP has just four members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) in Tamil Nadu -- riding piggyback on the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) - and none in Andhra Pradesh or Kerala. In Telangana, it has three MLAs who can be considered bonafide BJP.

That has not dampened the party’s spirits, by any stretch of the imagination. Its two-day national executive committee meetings in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, on July 2 and 3 was signed off with a massive Vijay Sankalp Sabha rally at Secunderabad’s Parade Grounds, indicating that a Mission South is in the works. The saffron party juggernaut sees an opening in Telangana, all part of its plans in the south to counter possible future losses in northern strongholds.

Eye on the south 

Four southern states are under the sway of regional satraps--Telangana is ruled by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s K. Chandrashekar Rao or KCR, Andhra Pradesh by the Yuva Sramika Rythu Congress’ YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and Tamil Nadu by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s MK Stalin while Kerala is steered by the Left Democratic Front’s Pinarayi Vijayan.

To be sure, BJP strategists are eyeing the states as electoral opportunities that need to be chased vigorously as part of the party’s anti-dynastic war, except in Kerala, where an ideological battle has been waged unsuccessfully for many years against the Left.

It is in Telangana where BJP fancies its chances in the 2023 assembly elections. It is a state where the party’s tacticians perceive a political vacuum in the wake of the growing anti-incumbency against the TRS and chief minister KCR. And with Congress in decline, it believes it is time to strike.

In the 2018 assembly poll, BJP had a tiny 7.1 percent vote share in Telangana, electing one member to the assembly. Six months down the line, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP sent four MPs from Telangana to the Lok Sabha, no mean achievement in a state where it barely existed.

In Andhra Pradesh, the party’s relationship with Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy is, at best, hazy. To begin with, it found the young chief minister, son of late former Andhra chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, more amenable to its overtures, not willing to ruffle feathers.

Andhra's nine MPs in the Rajya Sabha have been less than confrontational with the ruling party when it came to supporting contentious bills. But BJP’s natural propensity to expand its footprint can only come at the cost of regional parties -- particularly in the South -- making confrontation unavoidable.

Analysts believe that any serious encroachment on Andhra will begin only after Telangana is settled.

By any pragmatic reckoning, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are out of the saffron ambit in the immediate foreseeable future. BJP’s pro-Hindi stand is enough to raise hackles, particularly in Tamil Nadu, which has consistently opposed any attempt to impose the predominantly North Indian language on the South.

Unpredictable 

Despite the near domination of the BJP political juggernaut, elections in India can be notoriously unpredictable. In the 2018 assembly elections, successive wins for the Congress in three important Hindi-belt states -- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh – proved that the pitfalls for any political party, including the BJP – can scarcely be foreseen.

While PM Modi continues to top the popularity charts, the same cannot be said about his chief ministers. Devendra Fadnavis couldn’t retain power in Maharashtra in 2019, mainly due to ally Shiv Sena’s decision to team up with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party post-polls. In Jharkhand, Raghubar Das was unseated by voters in 2019 as well, while Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana had to depend on the support of Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party  (JJP) to get a majority in the assembly polls of 2019.

In the 2022 assembly elections, Modi was again the top draw. Of the four incumbent BJP CMs — Yogi Adityanath in UP, Pushkar Singh Dhami in Uttarakhand, Pramod Sawant in Goa, and N Biren Singh in Manipur — only the UP chief minister emerged as a leader with some mass base. But even there, it was the prime minister’s full-throated campaign that won the day for the party in India’s most politically crucial state.

The few dissenting voices within the saffron fold have been overwhelmed by the Modi phenomenon for the movement, but are never much beneath the surface, depending on the public mood.

Said KN Govindacharya, veteran RSS pracharak (full-time volunteer), environmentalist, and social activist: “Politics has shifted from being people-centric to money-centric. Money power has come to dominate; instead of party workers, electoral power brokers have become important. Instead of a cadre-based approach, social media has acquired huge significance. If freebies, doles, and charities continue to be handed out to 80 crore people, then it is an admission that there are needy people.”

Clearly, he is a rare voice in what otherwise looks like a bright political landscape for the BJP.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
first published: Aug 8, 2022 04:39 pm
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