The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stunned the country with its resounding victory in the 2014 general elections. Five years ago, it was almost inconceivable that more than a dozen States, spanning from Assam to Uttar Pradesh, would have chief ministers belonging to BJP. These successive electoral triumphs are attributed to an electoral machinery spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. The contours of this formidable election machine has been analysed in a new book, How BJP Wins: Inside India’s Most Powerful Machinery, written by journalist Prashant Jha, who had the first-hand experience of covering the 2014 parliamentary elections and then the subsequent elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
A discussion on this book was organised at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, in collaboration with Juggernaut Books, on September 21, 2017. The panel included Arvind Gupta, founder, Digital India Foundation/National Technology Head of the BJP and Maya Mirchandani, Senior Fellow, ORF besides Prashant Jha. Opening the discussion, Jha shared his experience and inspiration to write this book. Surprised by the scale of the BJP victory in the UP elections and with first-hand experience of covering 2014 parliamentary elections and subsequent state elections, the author was propelled to write on the machinery BJP built to legitimately win election and acquire political power and describe the sources of strength of this electoral machinery.
Maya Mirchandani, who chaired the discussion, highlighted a major theme of the book, which dealt with the BJP’s use of technology and Social Media in its election management process. Jha said technology is only one aspect of the formidable election apparatus created by Amit Shah. The foundational step in the creation of this machinery was to expand the quantity of membership. This was done with the help of their “Missed Call Membership Campaign” which led to significant quantitative expansion of the party base. Another aspect of the BJP’s mobilization process during the 2014 parliamentary elections was the “Booth Level Committee Mobilization”. Each booth was responsible for getting hundred members each within their spatial location. This process increased the BJP membership beyond the 10 million target in Uttar Pradesh alone. Post the elections, the relationship between the booth committee and the newly inducted members of the BJP cadre was maintained, which improved the quality of membership. Jha said the “constant focus on organization, frequent contact with members, use of technology, independent feedback mechanism to identify issues and absorbing and internalising the issues to fashion the campaign narrative have been the contribution factors for the BJP’s electoral success”.
Arvind Gupta explained the management of the party campaign via the internet and other digital medium during the 2014 elections. According to him, the BJP’s election juggernaut started with the 2012 State elections, and since then, the BJP has won almost 80 percent of the State elections it has contested. An existing on-ground cadre and technology supplemented the mass campaign and large-scale organization of the elections. The motto used by the BJP, according to Gupta, was “organise online for success offline”. He also distinguished between the digital and internet campaigns. The digital campaign included primarily the data collection for organisational purpose whereas the internet campaign dealt with outreach through social media. Gupta said by extending these tools, BJP party president Amit Shah launched the membership campaign, which created a national quantum of 12 crore members. Despite some aberrations, “the booth committee mobilisation” became the largest data collection exercise done by a political party in India. Gupta explained how data helped in regulating and managing the performance of the party and cadre at the ground level. Technology was the key enabler, which helped organise and mobilise the already existing party cadre, along with the drive of the Prime Minister and party president to campaign until the last moment and make every vote count.
The chair stirred the discussion towards the politics of elections and asked for the author’s comments on the constant campaign mode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the personal role of the Prime Minister in winning these elections, through his energy and ability to communicate with the most ordinary voter. In Jha’s view, the Prime Minister’s appeal can be understood by taking his career in three phases. During the first phase between 2002 and 2007, Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was largely seen as a Hindu leader. Post 2007, there was a conscious shift engineered by him to become the “Vikas Purush” or the “development man”. The 2014 elections win was due to an interplay of both these images. In 2015, the Delhi and Bihar loss of the BJP and development of a pro-corporate image of the government bereft from the problems of the poor, forced Prime Minister Modi to reinvent himself as the “leader of the poor”. This created faith in the intention and integrity of the Prime Minister amongst the people. On analysing the speeches of the Prime Minister from last year, Jha pointed out a clear binary mentioned in it of the honest poor and the corrupt rich, which successfully taps into the class resentment prevalent in the country. Jha also mentioned that the BJP government have leveraged the infrastructure set up by the UPA like the Adhaar, Direct Benefit Transfer and Socio Economic Census to run their own welfare schemes, using governance for political benefit.
Bringing a counter narrative to the discussion, Arvind Gupta explained how political branding includes communication of leadership, ideology, performance in governance and policies. According to him, the average Indian voter is very literate and aware of the schemes being provided to them and hence without the delivery of welfare measures, elections cannot be won in rural India. He was of the view that the BJP election mechanism is, much more than just the overarching image of Prime Minister Modi, is rooted in the welfare delivery and development. The 2014 election was won on a governance and development debate with support from all strata’s of the society. Commenting on the use of UPA infrastructure, Gupta propounded how innovative schemes like the “JAM Trinity” of the NDA regime was the actual essence behind the success of welfare schemes.
The discussion further laid out how the weakness of the opposition along with the BJP’s growing social base which includes the Hindu Dalits and OBCs is a causal factor in BJP making inroads into new States like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. According to Jha, the BJP’s electoral machine uses a systematic campaign of communal polarisation to their benefit, leading to a death of secularism in politics. However, Gupta denied the charges of identity politics, and said the party stands for the idea of “appeasement for none and justice for all”.
The discussion ended with a lively question answer session where thoughts on secularism losing its salience and sales value due to its misuse in garb of minority politics were discussed, along with the debate around policies being formulated by the government on the basis of discrimination and majoritarian consolidation. Also the extent of the role of professionals in the election machinery and the ramifications of the media narrative being pushed by the BJP was evaluated.
This report is prepared by Damini Singh, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi