FOR ANYONE WHO has followed Prashant Jha’s ground reports, especially in the months immediately after demonetisation last November and ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017, several anecdotes in his new book, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, will be familiar. When so many journalists were reporting extensively on the shock of demonetisation to people across the country—from farmers who couldn’t buy seed or fertiliser, to housewives whose cash savings were suddenly worthless, small traders who were forced to work on credit, to endless queues at ATMs and banks unable to cope with short supply of new currency— Jha was cautioning his readers against assuming that demonetisation had rung the electoral death knell for the BJP. On the ground in the towns of Uttar Pradesh—Moradabad, Varanasi, Mirzapur, Azamgarh and so many in between—he was hearing another story. One about how this massive disruption of the financial system and ordinary lives had turned into a successful PR and brand-building exercise by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the new messiah of the poor.
Jha was right. The UP result was stunning, to say the least. Vanquishing over two decades of electoral misfortune, the BJP had managed not only to convert the narrative of demonetisation distress in its favour, but to use every tool at its disposal—made available by the ‘Sangathan’ or organisation set up by party president Amit Shah well before the 2014 General Election through his assiduous enrolment of party members at the block and district level and extensive travel across the country to expand its support base, especially in states where it barely had any presence. The Modi Hawa in UP, Jha explains without any value judgement, was a combination of the lack of a credible opposition, a simple message (even as the stated aims of demonetisation shifted), organisational efficiency, and catchy slogans that reduced the most nuanced economic and social discussions to narrow binaries of rich-versus-poor, honest- versus-corrupt. A messaging strategy that has made Narendra Modi a brand in himself—his personal popularity and star campaign value even challenge equations between the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which Jha calls the ‘source, supplement and shadow’ of the party, and alma mater to virtually all its prominent leaders.
While the BJP’s political campaign may have shed nuance in order to win big in Uttar Pradesh, Jha’s analysis hasn’t. Midway through the book, writing about the attractiveness of the BJP’s ‘inclusive’ (Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas) approach to Uttar Pradesh’s voters, he says that the BJP’s successful consolidation of the vote along caste lines created a base for Hindu unity by uprooting upper-caste leaders and ‘leveraging the resentment’ of Dalit groups who had felt left out of the political discourse, deliberately excluding Muslims. He argues that by juxtaposing development, law- and-order and religion, the BJP creates a narrative of Muslims as ‘the other’ with the constant triggering of ‘low intensity, but persistent tensions and a sharpening of existing ones’ in a state where political parties have thrived on creating electoral constituencies which operate in silos of caste and religion, a process that fuels communal polarisation.
As it prepares for the next round of elections, Assembly and General, the party’s digital and social-media savvy machinery is already in overdrive. From experience—whether in 2004 when the country was taken by surprise by a General Election result that rejected Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ NDA Government and catapulted the UPA to power, or recent Assembly elections where it didn’t win clear majorities (Maharashtra, Jharkhand), and those where it suffered equally stunning defeats (Bihar—now moot, and Delhi), the book makes it amply clear that the BJP is a party that never sleeps. The question is whether the Amit Shah election machine will prove invincible in the face of the current economic downturn, or whether the opposition will manage to spring a surprise and find a credible face over the next 18 months to take on the BJP. The book doesn’t provide a clear answer to this, but Jha’s comprehensive journalistic prose and keen political analysis does provide a detailed, intensive and eminently useful view of what the voter can expect from the party’s campaign in the coming months.