The strategy behind the rise of a political party

Parties present ephemeral or long-lasting structures, and the ways in which parties gain access to power can be very diverse. They can range from naked violence of any kind, to campaigning for votes with crude or subtle means using money, social influence, the power of speech, leading questions, suggestion and crude pranks, to the point of grosser or more elaborate obstructive tactics within parliamentary bodies. -Max Weber Economy and Society1921.

The recent impressive electoral performances of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in various states of India have once again established its dominance, popularity and reach. This makes Nalin Mehta’s book, The new BJP: Modi and the creation of the largest political party in the worlda very timely read to understand how the party became national, the trajectory of its growth, and the strategies behind that rise.

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

One of the strengths of Mehta’s book is its detailed focus on the variety of factors and causes that have worked in favor of the BJP, especially since 2014. The section on the growth of the BJP in the North East is very detailed, and he delves deep into local issues and shifts in party strategy. A beef ban, for example, is high on the BJP’s political agenda, but this issue was a thorny issue in the states of Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Mehta, who relied on his network of local reporters to get the “inside story,” provides adequate context to these discussions of beef consumption in these states. He does well to show how adaptability – especially with food, where hiskaryakartaseven changed eating habits – helped the BJP maintain its reach and expand its base in the North East.


The New BJP by Nalin Mehta, Westland, 699

Mehta lists five strategies that have worked for the BJP in the North East: mergers and acquisitions; strategic alliances, cooptation and partnerships; narrative of the development and importance of the center in the North East; Hindu acculturation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and popular expansions; and the Hindu-Muslim fault lines and the Assam model. All these points explain the important developments in the Northeast, but at the same time allow us to subscribe to the ways in which the figure of the outsider has been apprehended in the different states of the region. To say that only one who is unambiguously anti-Muslim is communal is to misinterpret the sentiments of regional nationalisms like that of the Assamese. In doing so, regional varieties of nationalism are sanitized of their anti-minority sentiments. A fundamental question to ask is why did the NRC take place in Assam and not elsewhere? In what conditions do minorities live in the Northeast?

Charismatic political figures such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath get plenty of space and their profiles are presented succinctly. Undoubtedly, they had a huge influence among the voters. They became major political figures – in fact, Mehta says Modi is like Nehru in terms of influence – who transformed the face and outlook of the BJP. All three, like most members of the BJP, see their political involvement as a duty and a kind of minimal responsibility as Hindus, aspects that come 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 who knows what he is doing. On the other hand, Manmohan Singh is considered “effeminate”. One can find some similarity in Savarkar’s thoughts. Savarkar admired Muslims for being martial and “better material”, in the words of social theorist Ashis Nandy, for leading a modern nation-state. This contrasted sharply with the criticism of Hindus as unmartial, unmasculine, and unorganized. Psychologically, this urge can be distributed in various forms, on the basis of which gender-based violence against minorities could be studied. Although this masculinized image is presented to the reader, the book does not speak in an active voice about the use of violence.

Mehta also shows how the BJP has gained hugely in the rural heartland areas of Hindi over the years. He managed to win over new voters, even attracting Dalits and other minorities who previously voted for parties such as Congress. The BJP’s new strategies involved, according to Mehta, new caste alliances, reshaped caste relations, attention to gender structures and a targeted welfare policy. It drastically changed its organizational structure by including new members with greater representation of women, lower castes and class. Undoubtedly, the grassroots mobilization of the BJP is an essential mechanism for its presence and success.

In this expansion, the figure of the Muslim is almost eliminated from the electoral configurations of the BJP, especially in places like Uttar Pradesh. Such a lack of participation and representation seriously undermines democracy. The importance of their representation is crucial and is summed up succinctly by Asaduddin Owaisi when he noted that “my political fight and my argument is that we should not just vote but participate in elections so that democracy is strengthened, and the reality of our Indian democracy is that if you do not have a political voice, your issues of development and education will not be advanced. In other words, this development is crucial for situating BJP politics; it’s not just about ignoring Muslim votes. This is not simply a case of disinterest in their vote or an expression of confidence that he can win an election without their votes. It must be read in terms of what it means for 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 it, to understand “the structure of its social dominance and symbolic power.” The author achieves the objective of this book which is to show how the BJP has become an alternative political choice. Mehta states that the book is “a non-partisan, empirical and evidence-based study”. But can we afford to be non-partisan about NRC, Godhra, Ayodhya and CAA? He claims to talk about judgments, secularism and Hindu majoritarianism through other political actors. Mehta also states that the purpose of this book is not to show normative battles or moral positions, but rather to show processes and facts. This is where the book has been most successful but also leaves a moral abyss, which does not withstand the fabricated and repeated physical and symbolic violence on minorities in India. This is a glaring shortcoming. Causal factors, process, and facts are important, but at this point, morals and ethics matter just as much, if not more.

Suraj Gogoi is completing her doctorate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.

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