THE BJP’s re-election to power in last month’s general elections provides a number of key insights, even for a polity like Pakistan’s, which has historically been considered as institutionally different from India. Heading into the election, there was little doubt that the BJP was the front runner; however, a number of setbacks in Hindi heartland state elections in the preceding year, along with contestation by a grand opposition coalition (Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal) in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh had led to suggestions that its hold may weaken. This did not bear out.
In 2019, BJP secured 90 per cent of all seats in the north-western and central states of India (similar to 2014) and supplemented its tally by picking up seats in areas that it had historically underperformed in. This was particularly prominent in states like Odisha and more glaringly, West Bengal, where it won an all-time high of 18 seats with 40pc of the vote, largely gathered at the expense of the left and Congress.
Overall, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance improved its 2014 tally by 16 seats, with the BJP alone picking up 303 seats in a house of 543. This result leaves little doubt of its status as the single most dominant party in the country, especially considering that its closest national rival, Congress, won only 52 seats.
The BJP’s ability to mobilise large amounts of money has also helped grease its election machine.
The election aftermath has led to a flurry of analysis, some of which can be summarised to draw interesting insights into democratic contestation in increasingly hyper-connected societies. Political scientists and journalists have pored over survey and voting data to locate underlying trends and explanations. The biggest contradiction that pundits have sought to explain is that despite unemployment being at a (recorded) 45-year high of 6.1pc; farm prices at their lowest ebb in 18 years; and demonetisation inducing contraction in the large informal sector, the party still won posting big numbers in the process. If voters didn’t vote for economic performance, then what worked?
Here the analysis diverges on content, but is in agreement on form — each plausible answer looks at the BJP’s organisational capacity to communicate, reach out, and mobilise voters. Again, what aspect of the content of this communication and reaching out was more important is still up for a debate that is likely not going to be settled. But there is consensus that as an organisation, the party did a better job of getting across to voters than its rivals.
So what was the content of its messaging and outreach that worked? Indian progressives point to the party’s track record in stoking nationalist sentiment, which melds together Hindu political imagery along with statist machismo, invoking at different times secularists, Muslims, and Pakistan as the opposing other. This was particularly visible in the party’s election campaign, where Balakot and the cross-border conflict with Pakistan found lots of space in Modi’s messaging. There is some evidence for this being a successful strategy as pre-poll survey data by Lokniti CSDS has pointed to the importance of ‘national security’ to a large section of Indian voters.
Combined with the BJP’s reimagining of India as a predominantly Hindu nation, placing a higher premium to certain assertive Hindu rituals during its five years, the clandestine and, at times, open support to cow vigilantes and other ‘culture warriors’ have also contributed to its task of articulating ‘Hindu’ voting blocs where previously more divided categories existed.
At a more microcosmic level of political management, the BJP has also combined its national communication strategy and elevation of a ‘strongman prime minister’ image with strategic interventions at the grass roots. Captured best by Tariq Thachil’s work on non-state service provision by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindutva organisations, the reasoning here is that despite boasting a largely upper-caste leadership, the BJP is able to gain support of excluded segments through targeted reach-out and material provisions. This helps explain the contradiction of why poor voters (many of whom are also lower down in the caste hierarchy espoused by the party) would continue to vote for it.
More simply, the party’s ability to mobilise large amounts of money has also helped grease its election machine. Between 2017 and 2018, the party was able to capture 95pc of all Indian election bonds, with total value in hundreds of crores that allowed it to make targeted organisational interventions with poor voters, ensure support of local leaders, and finance its overall campaign.
Such diverse factors will find their champions, but there is no doubt that the BJP’s organisational ability and its ability to put out messaging that defines, and subsequently resonates with, voters is of utmost importance. No one is born a Modi supporter, but frequent contact — door-to-door in the conventional sense, and through WhatsApp, Facebook, and many other platforms will convince upwards of 30pc of India’s voting population that he alone is the only person worthy of becoming prime minister.
From a purely strategic perspective, the lesson for political actors hoping to contend against chauvinistic nationalism and majoritarianism is clear. Increased connectivity has led to a nationalisation of politics at a rapid scale. Voters now cultivate partisan affiliation with particular leaders in ways that haven’t been seen since the populists of the late 1960s. As Pradeeb Chibber and Rahul Verma’s work in India shows, voters are now also likely to vote for big-ticket ideological and national issues, a sharp departure from their caricature of being motivated solely by local patronage-based concerns. Most importantly, all of this is only possible through party organisations that are capable of communicating with voters across different social and spatial arenas. Without investment in party and movement organisation and strengthening, success is likely to be ephemeral.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2019