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The strategy behind a political party's rise

Nalin Mehta’s book on the BJP's growth hides behind data to avoid taking a stand but is a timely read to understand the  blueprint for the party's success

File photo of voters waiting outside a polling station during the second phase of the assembly elections in Assam in April 2021.
File photo of voters waiting outside a polling station during the second phase of the assembly elections in Assam in April 2021. (ANI Photo)

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Parties show ephemeral or enduring structures, and the parties’ means of attaining power can be quite diverse. They may range from naked violence of any kind, to campaigning for votes with coarse or subtle means using money, social influence, power of speech, leading questions, suggestion, and crude hoaxes, to the point of rougher or more elaborate tactics of obstruction within parliamentary bodies. - Max Weber, Economy and Society, 1921.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent impressive electoral performances in various states in India, yet again, established its dominance, popularity and reach. It makes Nalin Mehta’s book, The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World's Largest Political Party, a very timely read to understand how the party became a national one, the trajectory of its growth, and the strategies behind this rise.

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Mehta draws on many new datasets and research tools that he himself has helped develop in his years in newsrooms in India. These include the “Narad Index (comprising 11,588 BJP-linked documents between 2006 and 2019); the Mehta-Singh Social Index (with caste backgrounds of 4,415 political leaders in UP spread across three decades and four parties); Twitter Listening Post (which monitors seventy-five political accounts) and Pollniti (a centralised digital repository of 218 interactive data dashboards).” Mehta collaborated with data scientist Rishabh Srivastava to look at these very useful data sets.

One of the strengths of Mehta’s book is its detailed focus on the diversity of factors and causes that have worked in favour of the BJP, particularly since 2014. The section on the growth of BJP in the North-East is very detailed, and he delves deep into local issues and changes to party strategy. A beef ban, for instance, is one of the mainstays of the BJP’s political agenda, but this issue was a prickly one in the states of Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Mehta, who has drawn on his network of local journalists to get “the inside story”, provides an adequate background to those discussions around beef consumption in these states. He does well to show how adaptability—particularly with food, where itskaryakartaseven changed dietary habits—has helped the BJP maintain its reach and expand its base in the North-East.

The New BJP by Nalin Mehta, Westland,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
The New BJP by Nalin Mehta, Westland, 699

Mehta lists five strategies that worked for the BJP in the North-East—mergers and acquisitions; strategic alliances, co-option and partnerships; narrative of development and the importance of the centre in the North-East; Hindu acculturation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and grassroot expansions; and Hindu-Muslim fault lines and the Assam Model. All these points explain important developments in the North-East, but at the same time, allows for an underwriting of the ways in which the figure of the outsider has been viewed in various states in the region. To say that only one who is unambiguously anti-Muslim is communal is to misread the sentiments of regional nationalisms like that of the Assamese. In doing so, the regional varieties of nationalism are sanitized of their anti-minoritarian sentiments. One basic question to ask is why did the NRC take place in Assam and not elsewhere?Under what conditions do the minorities live in the North-East?

Charismatic political figures such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath get a lot of space and their profiles are presented succinctly. Without a doubt, they have had a tremendous influence among the voters. They have emerged as major political personalities—in fact, Mehta says Modi is Nehru like in terms of influence—who have transformed the face and prospects of the BJP. All three of them, like most BJP members, consider their commitment to politics as a duty and a kind of minimum responsibility as a Hindu, aspects that are brought out very well in the book.

Mehta also details how Modi’s masculine image appeals to voters, especially women. Through the many voices in the text, we hear that Modi is seen as a sex symbol, a man who can be trusted, and one who knows what he is doing. In contrast, Manmohan Singh is seen as “effeminate”. One can find some similarity in Savarkar’s thoughts. Savarkar admired the Muslims for being martial and a “better material”, to use social theorist Ashis Nandy’s words, for running a modern nation state. This was in stark contrast to the criticism of Hindus as non-martial, non-masculine and unorganised. Psychologically, such envy can become distributed in various forms, on the back of which gendered violence against minorities could be studied. Although this masculinized image is presented to the reader, the book fails to speak in the active voice about the use of violence.

Mehta also shows how the BJP gained tremendously in rural areas in the Hindi heartland over the years. It has managed to gain new voters, drawing in even Dalits and other minorities who earlier voted for parties such as the Congress. BJP’s new strategies involved, according to Mehta, novel caste alliances, reshaped caste relations, attention to gender structures, and a targeted politics of welfare. It radically changed its organizational structure by including newer members with more representation of women, lower caste and class. Without a doubt, the grassroot mobilization of the BJP is a core mechanism to its presence and success.

In this expansion, the figure of the Muslim is almost eliminated from the electoral configurations of the BJP, particularly in places like Uttar Pradesh. Such lack of participation and representation does serious harm to democracy. The importance of their representation is crucial and is summed up succinctly by Asaduddin Owaisi when he noted that “my political struggle and argument is that we should not only vote but contest elections so that democracy is strengthened, and the reality of our Indian democracy is that if you don’t have a political voice then your issues of development and education won’t be taken forward.” In other words, this development is crucial to locate the politics of the BJP; it is not a simple matter of ignoring Muslim votes. This is not just a simple case of disinterest in their vote or an expression of confidence that it can win elections without their votes. This has to be read in terms of what it means for the Muslims in the long run as citizens with rights.

As a sociologist, I take the Weberian approach to understanding a party which is, as Max Weber described, to understand the “structure of its social domination and symbolic power”. The author succeeds in the goal of this book which is to show how BJP became an alternative political choice. Mehta declares that the book is “a non-partisan, empirical, and evidence-based study”. But can one afford to be non-partisan about NRC, Godhra, Ayodhya, and CAA? He claims to speak about judgements, secularism and Hindu majoritarianism through other political actors. Mehta also declares that the vocation in this book is not to show normative battles or moral positions, but instead show process and facts. This is where the book succeeded the most but also leaves a moral abyss, which cannot withstand the physical and symbolic violence manufactured and repeatedly performed on the minorities in India. This is a glaring gap. Causal factors, process and facts are important, but at this juncture, morals and ethics matter equally, if not more.

Suraj Gogoi is completing his PhD in sociology at the National University of Singapore.

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