The BJP's Unstoppable (?) Ascent

A review of Prashant Jha's How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine

In the months of April and May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled off a stunning electoral victory, winning 282 out of 543 seats in India's Lok Sabha. This was the first time since 1984 that a party had secured a majority in the country's lower chamber. Over the past four years, the BJP has gone on to pick up chief ministerships in nine states, achieving a landslide in Uttar Pradesh---India's biggest electoral prize---in 2017. Due to these impressive victories, the moniker of "dominant party" is increasingly being attached to the BJP. Prashant Jha's engaging and fast-paced book aims to provide a comprehensive explanation for the BJP's spate of successes, which came after a decade of lackluster performance.

Jha's argument, in a nutshell, is that two bundles of factors are behind the turnaround in the BJP's electoral fortunes. Most of the book focuses on the BJP's efforts to woo voters in the Hindi-speaking heartland of north India. Here, four ingredients enabled the BJP to make inroads. First and foremost, Narendra Modi's charisma, appealing background story, and personal ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh produced a hawa (wave) that swept the BJP to power. Modi convincingly projected himself a"vikas purush" (development hero), a man of probity and competence who oversaw a period of rapid growth in Gujarat, and who could thus credibly promise to deliver the same for India. His backward caste origins helped assure skeptical OBCs that the BJP's traditional upper-caste bias was a thing of the past. Simultaneously, as the Sangh Parivar's own boy (Modi had cut his teeth as a balswayamsevak and then pracharak in the RSS), Modi was well positioned to persuade the "family" of Hindutva groups that the BJP's expansion under his tutelage served the best interests of the Hindu nationalist movement.

Modi has not been the sole cause of the party's unprecedented breakthrough, however. The organization building efforts spearheaded by Amit Shah (now party president) infused the BJP's ground game with a vitality and structure that it previously lacked, at least on a large scale. The emphasis on delegating responsibility to the party's booth-level committees was particularly critical in this regard. Next, the construction of fresh alliances between ascriptive identity groups mattered; getting this arithmetic right has always been an uphill struggle for the BJP since Muslims, who comprise some 20 percent of the population in UP and 17 percent in Bihar, very seldom vote for the party. (In the 2017 UP election, the forging of intra-varna coalitions against locally dominant jati was the major BJP trick; past favoritism toward OBC Yadavs by the Samajwadi Party and SC Jatavs by the BSP created resentments that the BJP skillfully exploited. Anti-Maratha mobilization also worked in the party's favor in Maharasthra in 2014.) Last, the persistent weakness of the main opposition parties was an enabling condition that has made the BJP's success relatively smooth sailing. Taken together, Jha contends, these strengths allowed the BJP to resolve its central dilemma: how to become an "inclusive Hindu party," attractive to OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis, without alienating core upper-caste support in its urban base.

These inputs paid handsome electoral dividends in north India. But in a closing chapter, Jha investigates the BJP's strategy for penetrating beyond its usual stomping ground. In Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, and Assam---all states where the BJP helped constitute state governments by the end of 2017---pragmatism was the watchword. The BJP co-opted local notables, inducing their defection even from old enemies like the Congress (see the remarkable case in Assam of Himanta Biswa Sarma, who deserted Congress in 2015, was quickly appointed the convenor of the BJP's Election Management Committee, and was made a cabinet minister in the BJP state government in 2016); it compromised on ideology; and made accommodations to regional realities wherever necessary.

For all its wealth of detail, what shines through in Jha's account is not so much the novelty of the BJP's modus operandi these past few years, but instead the many continuities with "normal" politics and party behavior. Much commentary on the BJP's recent ascent suggests that party wizards have crafted a new, uniquely potent approach to electioneering. The evidence marshaled in Jha's book mostly contradicts this idea. Consider ticket distribution, the process of allocating party nominations to individual candidates before an election. This is thorny exercise; if mishandled, it can cost a party dearly, since those denied tickets often break ranks, stand as independents, and split the vote of their former party. One might have thought that the sangathanist, cadre-based BJP would have perfected a method to prevent this from occurring. Not so, in Jha's telling. Tickets have continued to be doled out in an hoc manner, with party leaders frequently overruling the recommendations of district units, volunteers, and survey agencies. This led to setbacks in the 2015 Bihar elections, where a top BJP leader told Jha that disenchanted party rebels acted as spoilers in over 70 seats.  

In other respects, too, there seems little that is innovative about the BJP's basic approach. Inflaming communal tensions---notably using cow protection as a wedge issue to ensure that elections are fought along Hindu/Muslim lines rather than Forward/Backward ones---is part of an old BJP-Sangh playbook. Further, constructing coalitions of traditionally marginalized groups by reaching out to sympathetic community leaders and picking candidates from the right mix of castes is essential in a socially diverse country where ethnic voting is rife. This is not to diminish what the BJP has accomplished: it has played the electoral game with extraordinary dexterity, and far better than its rivals. Yet one reading of Jha's book is that the BJP has not fundamentally re-imagined the rules of this game. 

Modi's contribution does mark a break from the past, of course. The party have never before had a leader of his stature or reach; he remains by far the BJP's greatest asset. For example, the book describes how, through his deft rhetoric, Modi was able to parry accusations that his government had been callous and incompetent in rolling out demonetization---a policy that achieved negligible results while inflicting hardship on many vulnerable citizens. But the party's dependence on one star campaigner, alongside other compromises made by the party on its path to power, calls into question the long-term viability of the BJP election juggernaut. In various aspects, the party seems to be falling prey to "Congressization." Characterized by reverence for one individual, ideological dilution, and the courting of defectors with personal vote banks, it increasingly resembles Indira Gandhi's Congress. Whether the BJP deinstitutionalizes to the same extent as did Mrs Gandhi's party remains to be seen, and the Sangh may continue to provide the backbone that the Congress lacked.

Jha, a distinguished journalist at the Hindustan Times, offers a narrative that is rich and covers impressive ground. It is based on extensive travel during the various elections of 2015--17, and interviews with voters and top party insiders. There are also references to the scholarly literature, which is always nice to see! One can quibble on a few points. For example, a reader might be left with the sense that Mohan Bhagwat's ill-chosen words about reservations in the midst of the Bihar state assembly campaign were the primary cause of the BJP's loss there. This overlooks the fact that Modi too in several speeches at the time conveyed the impression that the BJP was less that 100 percent committed to affirmative action; more importantly, Nitish Kumar's excellent development record offset anti-incumbency dynamics and neutralized one of Modi's main selling points. Jha notes how important it was that the BJP managed to thwart an alliance of opposition parties in Assam, yet puzzlingly avoids any mention of how this was achieved. The book uses the term "social engineering" when describing the knitting together of cross-caste coalitions, although this phrase typically refers to attempts to change deep-seated attitudes and behaviors. The chapter on communal polarization does a good job summarizing the depressing trends in this area since the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, but (perhaps inevitably) hard evidence on the BJP's complicity is thin, and the interpretation of so much BJP messaging through a communal lens sometimes feels tendentious. Nevertheless, these small objections should not detract from what is a measured account, of value to researchers, students, and general readers alike.

The book turns up several narrower social scientific questions worth pondering. The first concerns the role of technology, information, and microtargeting in winning support. Great hay has been made of the BJP's data-driven operation. Arvind Gupta, as the head of the BJP's IT cell, has been credited with garnering new votes for the party through Facebook, WhatsApp, and, chiefly, the collation of exhaustive membership and neighborhood data prior to the 2014 election. Echoing a common refrain, Jha writes that "Data is the new weapon in elections." Yet how effective are such tactics in reality? Evidence from the United States is pessimistic---people select into social media, and, beyond party membership and race, emit few easily observable, telltale signs of their voting intentions. It seems quite likely these problems are compounded in the Indian context by the low quality of the data being collected (Jha details the BJP's "Sashakta Bhajapa, Sashakta Bharat" membership drive in which voters merely had to drop a missed call to register as a party member), bloc voting where most groups do not maintain stable partisan preferences, and the huge uncertainty inherent in multi-way contests where the list of names appearing on the ballot is finalized only weeks before the election. 

Next, we need to know more about the drivers of opposition coordination. The BJP has thrived lately in India's simple plurality system, yet the fact remains that it won just 31 percent of the popular vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. When the primary opposition bands together, as did the JD(U), the RJD, and the Congress for the mahagathbandhan in Bihar in 2015, the BJP's chances of victory evaporate. Under what circumstances are opposition parties able to make seat-sharing arrangements and form pre-election coalitions?

Last, the appeal of Modi invites more detailed understanding. Modern political science, particularly the subfield of comparative politics, has tended to shy away from exploring the qualities of national-level leaders. Single cases yield limited empirical traction. There could be ways, though, to make progress. What is the effect of attending a Modi rally on vote choice? What elements of his messaging draw in most support? How does this vary across different categories of citizens? Advances on these micro-empirical questions could offer important insights as India finds itself on the verge of dominant party rule once more.

Gareth Nellis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. His research focuses on political parties, in particular the origins and persistence of weakly institutionalized party systems, and the extent to which parties matter for key development outcomes. A second strand of work addresses the drivers of discrimination against internal migrants in fast-urbanizing settings. 

Purchase the book on Amazon here.

See Prashant Jha's other work here.

Visit Gareth Nellis' website here.