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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review of "The Rise of the BJP: The Making of the World's Largest Political Party" by Bhupender Yadav and Ila Patnaik

by Ajay Shah.

The INC emerged as the dominant party after independence. A similar phenomenon was seen in other countries, e.g. the PRI in Mexico. With the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha election results, the BJP emerged as a dominant force in Indian politics. For everyone interested in India, we need to learn more about the sources of this success, and about the nature of the BJP as a political party and as an organisation. Many books about the BJP have been written. I found the new book insightful and thought provoking; it has many new ideas, it made me think in new ways, it changed the way I see the world.

Many simple stories are told about the rise of the BJP, e.g. around nationalism. I have been skeptical about the extent to which these can be at work. After all, `National' is the middle name of the INC, and after winning the war in Bangladesh in December 1971, Indira Gandhi's INC rapidly collapsed into a political crisis in 1973-1975. Perhaps we underestimate voters, perhaps we are too ready to impute base passions upon voters. We need to think more about the forces at work.

An insightful path for thinking about the world is to see the role of organisations, of teams of humans that come together to achieve complex tasks. To understand an organisation, we must understand the mechanisms of information, incentives and power that bind the group of people together, and generate actions by each person that are adequately consistent with the objectives of the organisation. This way of thinking yields insights about for-profit firms, into the large magnitudes of resources that are used by Indian state organisations which fail to deliver on their organisational objectives, and also into political parties. It encourages us to think about deeper forces rather than concepts like popularity of individuals or the passions of the street. In the book, I found new insights into the BJP as an organisation.

In this organisation-oriented approach to the evolution of Indian party politics, we would tell a story where in 1947, the INC was the only game in town. It had built a complex organisation under highly adverse conditions, of British rule, of a low probability of personnel achieving personal benefits from political activism, and of limited resourcing owing to the fear of rich people. The organisation design of the INC, that worked 1919-1962, broke down thereafter. The arrangement of information, incentives and power, that worked for the freedom movement and for the early decades after independence, were no longer optimal for the later period. In parallel with this decline of the INC as an organisation, the book tells the story of how the BJP built a more effective organisation design.

A major theme of the book is political mobilisation of the masses. A hundred years ago, Gandhiji got people to get involved, to march on streets, to turn the other cheek when faced with state violence. In a lost age, people walked many kilometres to catch a tiny glimpse of Nehru and hear a raspy voice crackling in loudspeakers. The precise recipes for mobilisation change over the years. When the people lost interest in listening to politicians, there was not enough fundamental thinking; many organisation people tried to cover up for the loss of interest through manufactured crowds. When I have been in political rallies in India, I have often seen listless people.

The BJP innovated with an array of process methods for political mobilisation. Whether it is a yatra or a divas, they have developed clear names and process methods for a continuous heartbeat of political mobilisation that is now taking place all across the country. Regardless of the extent to which there is a base that is ideologically motivated, a lot of people are attracted by the drum beat of activity and a sense of belonging to a club. The massive scale of mobilisation activity all around the country helps pull in enough voters who would otherwise be non-ideological, to get to the 37% vote share.

There is an ironic link between INC welfarism and BJP mobilisation. The Indian left and the INC focused the union government towards welfare, and built the UIDAI system. The BJP has built a remarkable system for reminding the recipient of welfare, all around the country, that the subsidy has come from Mr. Modi. We marvel at the complexity of information processing, in getting precise and personalised facts out to millions of party workers who talk with hundreds of millions of voters. These were unintended consequences of the emphasis in the Indian state upon subsidies and not public goods.

In understanding India, we need to think more about the BJP. We have to look beyond the `crests of foam that the waves of history carry on their strong backs'. Bhupender Yadav and Ila Patnaik have written a valuable book which helps us understand the phenomenon and direct our curiosity into a new set of questions.

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