IPCS Discussion

How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine

01 Dec, 2017    ·   5401

Report of a discussion of Prashant Jha’s latest book: ‘How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine’, held on 24 November 2017. 

Report of a discussion of Prashant Jha’s latest book: ‘How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine’, held on 24 November 2017. 

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) organised a book discussion of journalist and author, Prashant Jha's, recent book, titled ‘How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine’. The discussion was chaired by Ambassador (Retd) Salman Haidar, Patron, IPCS, and former Foreign Secretary of India.

The book traces the journey of how the party has come to achieve political pre-eminence in India in contemporary time, which the author maps into a framework of five key elements. According to Jha, the first and most important element is the persona of incumbent Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He argues that the BJP has been able to construct a multiclass alliance of both the rich and the poor based on the prime minister’s three complementing identities: a traditional image of being a strong Hindu leader; an image of a ‘vikaspurush’ (reformer); and an image of 'messiah of the poor'. Jha contends that the combination of the first two identities played an essential role in the BJP's victory in the 2014 general elections; and the third identity was consolidated via the 2016 demonetisation exercise. 

Jha says the second source of the BJP's strength is party President Amit Shah’s prolific organisational skills and strategies, which the former says provides the BJP with the strongest organisational structure that any national party in India’s history has enjoyed, and cites measures such as a quantitative expansion of the membership base; constant engagement and campaigning by the members and with the members, which allows the party reach out to the grassroots; extensive use of professional surveying to gain a deep understanding of the Indian electorate.

Jha notes that based on the findings of the surveys, the BJP has restructured the party to include more under-represented Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in its organisation. Combined with Modi’s image of being a 'messiah of the poor', the BJP has been able to attract voters from "lower caste" backgrounds, and has transformed itself from a largely upper caste party to an relatively more inclusive Hindu body; and that the party has constructed a coalition between its traditional base, the more visible castes, and the most marginal groups in Indian society.

Based on his extensive travels and interviews in politically important states in Northern India, the author observes that secularism has lost its resonance with the people. Jha contends that the BJP - by arguing that secular parties in India are not secular but instead merely seek the Muslim vote bank - has been able to split the voters. Meanwhile, on  the electoral battlefield, the BJP has projected itself as the vanguard of the Hindus.

Fifth, Jha says, unlike the Vajpayee era when relations between the BJP and the Sangh Parivar were not always cordial, in current times, there is a strong convergence between both organisations, which functions as a source of strength for the party. Since the Sangh has a strong grassroots-base, it is able to mobilise voters on the polling day to vote for the party and to convince others to do the same.

Apart from the five key elements, the author also notes that the BJP is a highly adaptable party. This characteristic is visible in its electoral victories in the states in India’s Northeast. In Manipur, for instance, where there have been extrajudicial executions, the party has projected itself as a champion of civil liberties - something it does not emphasise in other places in the country. 

The discussion touched upon a wide range of subjects, and Jha concluded by noting that in the 2019 general elections, much will depend on a multitude of factors such as the BJP’s ability to hold together its multi-caste alliance and the creeping disillusionment amongst the Sangh’s base.

Rapporteured by Pieter-Jan Dockx, Research Intern, IPCS