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Friday, February 11, 2022

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

by Josh Felman.

In 2014, the BJP secured a remarkable victory. They won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha elections, the first time any political party had done so in three decades. Then, five years later, they repeated this feat, increasing their majority. Now, they dominate the national landscape in a way not seen since the heyday of the Congress party, half a century ago.

How did this happen? Most analysts give a one-word answer: Modi. Others give a two-word answer: Modi-Shah. Without doubt, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are exceptional politicians and strategists. But life is complicated, and great men cannot entirely determine the course of history.

One reason why the BJP won in a landslide in 2014 is that Congress completely mismanaged the economy. The party proved unable to deal with the fundamental problems that emerged after the Global Financial Crisis, such as the sizeable non-performing loans at the banks. Instead, they tried to resuscitate the economy through lax fiscal and monetary policy, a strategy which failed to revive growth, producing only double-digit inflation. Then came a spate of scandals, and the government became paralyzed, unable to do anything at all.

Even so, it is wrong think that the BJP was merely the accidental beneficiary of Congress' collapse. As this book stresses, the BJP has been rising for a long time.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. So consider the following chart. It shows that despite a notable dip in the 2000s, there has been a clear trend to the BJP's representation in the Lok Sabha. And that trend is upward. The BJP was formed in the 1980s, initially earning just a few seats. By the mid-1990s, it had become the largest party in Parliament.

How can we possibly explain this development? This book provides an answer. Not "the" answer, of course, but a particularly valuable answer, for the explanation comes from a BJP insider. Unlike most books written by politicians, this work avoids the intricacies of long-forgotten debates and refuses to engage in score-settling. Instead, this is a serious work, covering the entire sweep of independent India's history, documented with extensive footnotes -- exactly as one would expect from the co-author, who is a noted, non-political academic. (Full disclosure: I have also been a co-author with Ila Patnaik.)

The aim of the book is to explain how we have arrived at the current political pass. Of course, it does so from a BJP perspective. But that is exactly the need of the moment: we need to understand what the BJP believes, as these beliefs will translate into actions that affect all of us.

So, what explanation does the book provide? Essentially, it argues that the rise of the BJP stems from two factors: its organizational ability and its message. Of the first, the book makes a convincing case. Indeed, no reader – no matter what his or her political view – can finish this book without a sense of awe. It’s not just that the party has come up with one brilliant idea after another, such as "multiplying" their Prime Ministerial candidate by projecting 10-foot holograms of Modi in 200 cities across the country. Even more astounding is the BJP's ground game.

Consider the BJP's strategy for the 2014 election. The party developed a booth management strategy, under which leaders were assigned to every single one of the 1 million voting booths in the country. Each leader supervised around 50 individuals, whose job it was to meet with around 30 voters and convince 15 of them to vote for the BJP.

This arrangement required an incredible amount of effort, coordination – and manpower. Simple arithmetic shows that 50 leaders for 1 million booths required no less than 50 million party workers. For the 2019 election, the party mobilized 110 million members. How on earth did the BJP manage to convince so many people to work so hard for the party?

One strategy has been to convince members that they are part of a family. They even have a slogan for this: Mera Parivar, Bhajpa Parivar (My family is the BJP family.) In practice, this means that the life of a party worker is dominated by an endless calendar of events: campaigns, followed by political activities, interspersed with visits from seniors. Particularly strenuous efforts are made to nourish connexions amongst members from all strata of the party, with seniors being asked to share meals with workers on their visits to the regions.

Another strategy is to employ the highly motivated swayamsevaks (volunteers) of the RSS. The authors are unequivocal about the links between the RSS and the BJP. They emphasize that the predecessor of the BJP, the Jana Sangh, was founded with the explicit purpose of giving a political voice to the RSS' vision for India. And they note that the BJP was born when the leaders of the Jana Sangh were forced to choose between their commitment to the RSS philosophy and their political career in the Janata Party. They chose to stay true to their ideology.

The devotion to this ideology remains strong to this day. Prime Minister Modi has said, 'I am connected to the mission and not ambition. In my life, mission is everything, not ambition'.

So, what exactly is this mission? Put another way, if the second reason for the BJP’s success is that it has developed an attractive message, what exactly is that message?

In some areas, the book gives a clear answer. It says that right from the start the BJP has focused on the fight against corruption. Its first major success came in 1987 when it was able to pin the Bofors scandal on the Congress Party, accusing their senior officials of taking bribes in return for granting a large defence contract. In 2002, Venkaiah Naidu became BJP President partly on the strength of his credentials as convener of an anti-corruption movement in Andhra Pradesh. And of course corruption was a major theme of the 2014 election.

Another key element of the BJP mission, according to the book, is improving the standard of living of the poor, the people whom the Jana Sangh used to call the 'last man in line'. The Modi government came up with a particularly effective way of doing this, by providing the poor with tangible benefits such as LPG gas cylinders and toilets – and cash transfers, paid directly to newly created Jan Dhan bank accounts. These programs created a direct link between the party and the poor, earning in particular the loyalty of female voters.

In other areas, however, the book is much less precise. For example, we are told repeatedly that the BJP believes in "nationalism". But it is not clear what this means. After all, Congress is also a nationalist party; indeed, they led the independence movement against the British.

Some commentators claim that the BJP's nationalism is different because it is a communitarian vision, focusing on building a Hindu nation-state. The BJP strenuously denies this charge. Indeed, the word Hindutva is not to be found anywhere in this book. Instead, the BJP views itself as the party of true secularism, devoted to the principle that no group should be treated differently by the state. Accordingly, they oppose triple talak divorce and special status for Kashmir – because these policies treat different groups differently.

But this argument sits uneasily with the claim that the BJP believes in 'cultural nationalism'. The book takes great pains to stress that this phrase refers to an all-Indian culture, coming out of many traditions: Hindu, Muslim, even Western. But the only traditions the BJP has mobilized to defend – at least the only ones mentioned in the book are Hindu traditions.

Particularly striking is the framing of the dispute over whether to build a Ram temple on land where a mosque was standing. As the book puts it, for the BJP, Ayodhya was not a land dispute; "it was a mission to unite India with the thread of cultural nationalism". The argument seems to be that the country should have united behind this plan, since it honoured an important tradition, the place where Lord Ram was reputed to be born. But many people did not see things this way, and the dispute proved enormously divisive.

That said, the BJP's message of cultural nationalism does resonate with a significant section of the population, giving it a compelling message to go with its superb organization and millions of devoted members. That makes the BJP a formidable vote-getting machine. No wonder it has just risen and risen.

But history teaches that a relentless rise is often followed by a disastrous fall. Indeed, one doesn't have to look very far to see an example of this process at work. Right after independence the Congress Party bestrode the political landscape like a colossus, winning 364 out of the 489 contested seats in the first parliamentary election. But since the 1970s it has gradually decayed, to the point where it holds only 52 seats in the current Lok Sabha.

The BJP has thought long and hard about this example, concluding that Congress declined because it failed to nourish its roots during its long period in power. To make sure this doesn’t happen to them, the BJP not only pays considerable attention to sustaining morale amongst its party members (as already mentioned); it also takes great care to avoid the perils of dynastic leadership. The BJP offers a clear path for ambitious young supporters, who can start with party work, progress to a role in government, and then take up role of an elder statesman. To ensure that this career ladder is not blocked by elderly seniors, members are expected to step aside from active operational roles once they reach the age of 75. It will be interesting to see whether this practice continues, now that the party has a firm hold on power.

Beyond the constant need to replenish the party with new energy, the BJP faces another challenge, one that will be even more difficult to manage: it must meet the needs of the nation. Without doubt, the BJP has found a way to satisfy what we could call 'Cultural India'. But meeting the needs of Aspirational India, the hundreds of millions of young people looking to find good jobs and raise their living standards, will be a far more difficult task.

The current government is fully aware of this problem, having inherited an economy that was in shambles. Accordingly, it has implemented reform after reform, including Inflation Targeting, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, and the Goods and Services Tax. But the economy has still failed to take off, as investment has remained stubbornly low.

So far, there have been no political consequences, as the public has accepted that it will take time to restore an economy that was in such bad shape when the current government arrived. But the BJP knows that at some point, the public will demand results.

Accordingly in 2020, the government decided to change tack, abandoning the post-1991 policy of opening up the economy in favour of a new approach, Atmanirbhar Bharat ('Self-Reliant India'), whereby tariffs are being increased to encourage import substitution while production subsidies are being given to firms selected by the government. It is still early days, but there is little in India’s history or that of Asia more generally that suggests this strategy is likely to work. In that case, trouble for the BJP may lie ahead.

For far too long, the nature of the BJP has remained a mystery to the English-reading public. Finally, we have an authoritative presentation of their point of view, one that allows us to understand better how the BJP has risen and what it believes. For anyone who wants to understand how India arrived at the current juncture – and where it is likely to go in the future – this book is a must read. Buy it and read it carefully.


Josh Felman is the principal at JH Consulting.

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