His blueprint has launched a party which is unlikely to wither in decades.
NEW DELHI: The Bharatiya Janata Party today is India’s largest party in terms of seats held in the Parliament and in the state legislatures. For a party whose precursor, BJS, won three seats in 1952 and BJP itself began its journey with mere two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 (BJP was formed in 1980), it is a remarkable journey. In 2015, during the tenure of Amit Shah as party president, BJP overtook the Communist Party of China in terms of total membership to become the world’s largest organisation. Having emerged as the largest parliamentary party in 1996, BJP formed a government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which lasted 13 days, as BJP’s Sangh linkage made it an “untouchable” among parties which swore by their perception of secularism. Prior to the 1998 elections, BJP acted as the fulcrum to launch a 26-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which won a majority and Vajpayee returned as Prime Minister. Unable to manage smaller allies, the government fell by one vote, necessitating polls again in 1999—the BJP-led NDA won again and Vajpayee ruled a full term until 2004, when his “India Shining” campaign failed to click and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was ushered in for a decade.
The post 2004 years saw a slow but steady transformation of BJP. Vajpayee’s ill-health took him away from the scene. Lal Krishna Advani, who had been waiting in the wings, emerged as the new leader. The repeated success of a Narendra Modi (who had been pitchforked from being a Sangh pracharak with no previous legislative experience to be Gujarat’s Chief Minister in 2001) in 2002, 2007 and 2012 state polls catapulted him into the party’s imagination and he was anointed as the party’s prime ministerial face in 2013. BJP contested 2014 as the lead party of the NDA, winning a clear majority of its own. Slowly, the NDA, which had seen attrition since 2003, withered—it remains on name even today, though 26 parties have departed over the past 24 years. The BJP has emerged on its own and its acceleration has been matched by the deceleration of the Indian National Congress, which has emerged as a frail caricature of the political colossus it once used to be.
The rise and rise of the BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a phenomenon of historical significance—from being the untouchable among non-Congress parties when it began its journey in 1980, in 2014 the BJP not only won more seats than any other party over the past several decades, ending the era of coalitions (and intrinsic instability, indecisiveness), it also increased its tally in the next general elections in 2019. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) became an adjunct of a dominating party, which had a majority of its own—much like the Left Front in West Bengal which ruled uninterruptedly for 34 years, with CPM, which enjoyed clear majority since 1977, accommodating its allies both in the government and in election seat adjustments. BJP’s exceptional achievements got reinforced by the party’s spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat in 2022.
How the party has grown over the decades, what methodologies were adopted to build and expand the organisation, and how Modi experimented with, and innovated upon, the traditional methods of party-building—these need to be understood in order to fathom the phenomenon of Narendra Modi. His reliance on the Sangh’s sangathan model—which he had experimented with initially (along with Amit Shah) as a city organiser in Ahmedabad in 1987 and perfected when he was the party’s national general secretary between 1996-2001 and given charge initially of Haryana and then Himachal and Punjab—has paid off. BJP campaigns are overseen by booth committees which are bolstered by panna committees—which are assigned the task of contacting individual voters based on each page of the voters’ list. The data of Direct Benefit Transfer schemes—of food grains, gas cylinders, piped water connections, housing for the poor, etcetera—is used by panna panels to contact labharthis (beneficiaries). A formidable and unassailable vote bank thus emerges. This vote bank cuts across the traditional caste-based casting of votes.
In hindsight, the party’s journey to greater heights seems quite natural (as opposed to deliberate) when they are explained in terms of the ideology and the events that formed the context. That, however, is often a simplification and a mere post-facto narrative, as perceptive political leaders and political scientists know well. They know that a political party, like any other comparable organisation, grows (or diminishes) as an outcome of well-planned strategies internal to itself. It is this party-building process of the BJP—and Modi’s less-known contributions to it—that holds the key. As Gujarat CM, Modi used Gujarati asmita as his reachout tool. Invocations of national pride, including the unapologetic celebration of India’s Hindu heritage have marked the past eight years of Modi as PM. The evolution of India-first foreign policy that seeks to engage with the world on terms favourable to India has been a major achievement of the Modi regime. India had chaired G-20 in its nascent years in 1999 when Yashwant Sinha was the Finance Minister of the Vajpayee regime—but that did not leave an indelible mark as the profile achieved by India when Narendra Modi took over the G-20 gavel at Bali and India prepares to host world leaders in 2023. Integral Humanism, the talisman given by Deendayal Upadhyay to the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) in 1965 had invocation of national pride and an India-centric foreign policy as its pivots. The first movement launched by BJS in 1953 was for the full integration of J&K into India. In the past eight years Modi has fulfilled the tasks which began in the BJS days. Vajpayee, a stalwart of the BJS and founder of BJP, was perhaps constrained by collation compulsions—since 2014 Modi had no such fetters. Another difference between the two BJP PMs is that while Vajpayee had open differences with the then Sangh Sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, the relationship between Mohan Bhagwat and Modi has been smooth. Vajpayee too was a pracharak, but his time spent in parliamentary politics perhaps distanced him a bit. Modi having evolved straight from being a pracharak to a CM and then PM has carried he organisational mantle on his shoulders.
If one interacts with BJP workers, leaders and observers, they tell the story of how the veterans of this cadre-based party had developed a unique Indian model to build the organisation, and how Modi, appreciating its limitations, crafted novel innovations upon it—in Gujarat in the 1980s, and in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the 1990s. Since 2002, he has coupled the organisational consolidation strategies with the governance paradigm. Governance is consciously dovetailed into a larger political exercise of building mass support.
For concrete examples, consider Modi’s first assignment in electoral politics, which was crafting the strategy for the Ahmedabad civic elections in 1987, and he managed to deliver an overwhelming majority for the party that had never been in power in the city. Or, consider his four terms as Chief Minister, during which he started several initiatives—training the cadre in the use of technology, holding regular “dabba” (tiffin-box) meetings with workers in the field, or delegation of micro-planning at booth level to party activists—without which the ideological project of the party, which chose lotus as its symbol, might not have bloomed to the extent it has.
Modi’s micromanagement and attention to minute detail have made the BJP into an election-winning juggernaut, and the party has built a nationwide robust organisational network. BJP’s phenomenal growth significantly conforms to an overarching historic view that the founders of the BJS, the precursor of the BJP, had envisaged for it. The BJP has now occupied the position of the principal pole of Indian politics after effectively displacing the Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress. But unlike the Congress, the BJP is neither driven by individual charisma nor is it under the thrall of a set of individuals in a family. Despite Modi’s personal charm, the party has organically grown into a formidable organisation which is not constrained by its geographical or social limitations. For instance, nobody would have imagined a decade back that Himanta Biswa Sarma, an ex-Congress leader of Assam, would emerge as an icon of the BJP in the Northeast. Similarly, the spectacular victory of Yogi Adityanath, a Rajput CM in caste-ridden Uttar Pradesh, who stomped back to power in 2022, has turned the conventional political wisdom on its head. Recent Gujarat success has been acknowledged by Modi to successful strategising by the state party chief, C.R. Patil—thus after Modi and Amit Shah a third entity has risen in the BJP horizon from Gujarat. There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the colossus presence of Modi, the BJP will inherit an organisational structure and rich legacy which will ensure its dominant position for decades to come. The Party will continue to invent its icons of the time.