It started with a municipal election that nobody thought mattered. It was 1987. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the leading light of the BJP and one day he got an unusual request from a young party organization secretary in Gujarat. The young man, who had just moved to the BJP from the RSS, wanted his party leader to come and campaign for party candidates in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation election.
Vajpayee, who was then the biggest name in the BJP, flared up in anger. He was upset over being called for a mere municipal poll. But the young state secretary persisted. “This would be the first major win for us after 1984,” he pressed on. “It would be good if you would come,” he told Vajpayee.
It was an audacious request. The Congress had unprecedented sway over Gujarat, the BJP had only 11 MLAs in the state and Rajiv Gandhi’s party enjoyed a historic nationwide majority. Vajpayee may have been angry but young man knew that “Atalji had this habit. He would first get angry but if you persisted, he would relent”.
Eventually, Vajpayee agreed and came to address a rally at Vijay Chowk in the city’s Rajendra Nagar. He was received by such a large crowd that he thought that attendees had been brought in from other constituencies. “He was shaken.” The young man quickly clarified, “No, no. This crowd is only from 4 wards in the city.” Vajpayee famously thought the energetic party organizer on the ground was “lying”.
The organizer was Narendra Modi, then 37-years-old. The BJP went on to win the Ahmedabad municipal elections and the party got its first mayor in the city. “That victory changed everything and brought life to BJP,” he later recounted. Till then, the BJP only had a presence in Rajkot.
The AMC election of 1987 was a turning point for BJP in Gujarat. Modi did two things in that election. First, he focused on the cadre and organization, personally training over 200 people on how to hold election meetings. The party started a practice of hundreds of nukkad (neighbourhood corner) meetings.
Second, the day after BJP won, Modi visited all party candidates personally. He started visiting their homes at as early as 5am, and visited nearly 100 candidates and congratulated them in person. As one veteran worker recalled, “He could have called everyone to office and met them, but he took all the efforts to visit each of them.”
Two years later, the BJP became the single largest party in Gujarat in the parliamentary elections. And in 1995, it replicated that feat in the state polls too. It hasn’t lost a Gujarat state election since. And now in 2022, it has scored the greatest electoral triumph yet in the state’s history.
A lot will be made about the BJP’s historic Gujarat win, Brand Modi and the PM’s 35 rallies in the state. There is no question that the Modi personae and his indelible identification with Gujarati identity has once again delivered Gujarat to the BJP.
Yet, beneath the optics and the high velocity campaigning, the roots of this BJP victory lie in a deeper process of cadre-building and a painstaking brick-by-brick building of the party’s organization. Modi has been the prime architect of this backbone of the party organization in the state. And this process long predates Modi’s political stardom and the making of Brand Modi itself. Beyond ideology, it is this cadre-building which continues to pay BJP’s rich dividends. There are five key components of this:
Focus on the voting booth and Modi’s primacy to ‘panna pramukh’
A significant feature of the New BJP’s growth post-2014 has been its focus on the implementation, expansion and delivery of a model of cadre management that focused on the last-mile worker. This is predicated on expanding the party’s grassroots reach and getting the vote out.
Modi, when he became national general secretary (sangathan mahamantri) of the BJP, had popularised the slogan ‘One booth, 10 youth’, while presiding over a meeting in Gujarat. It is this idea that later, when Modi was in-charge of the Chandigarh BJP, deepened into a crucial insight that booth management was “synonymous with election management”. This coalesced initially into the slogan ‘Booth Jeeta, Election Jeeta.’ (Win the booth, win the election) and then to the tagline “Hamara Booth, Sab Se Mazboot.” (My booth, the strongest). It is this thought process that was at the core eventually developed into the thinking that animated the later strengthening of the BJP
These slogans, some of which dated back from Modi’s time as a national BJP apparatchik in-charge of key north Indian states, indicate the beginning of a concerted effort to treat the heat and dust of elections as a “science”.
It is this approach of paying respect and structural attention to the last-mile worker that lay at the heart of the BJP’s organisational and electoral expansion post-2014 after Modi’s ascent as Prime Minister. For example, nationally, India has 10,35,000 voting booths. The BJP says it had set up booth-level committees in 83 per cent of these (863,000) between 2014 and 2019.
The BJP’s booth-level mobilisation is driven deeper during election periods by two local entities that are largely active primarily during the campaign season: panna pramukh (page head/in-charge) and vistaraks (expanders). The ‘panna pramukh’ is essentially in charge of a single page (panna) of the voting list in their area’s voting booth and is the first point of contact for most voters in the BJP’s election management machinery.
This practice was first born in the Gujarat BJP under Modi and then became the basis of the party’s national expansion, including in Uttar Pradesh from 2014 onwards. Local BJP leaders says that the idea originally germinated during Modi’s tenure as a party administrator in the state.
During his years of Gujarat chief minister, Modi continued to hold responsibility as a ‘panna pramukh’ himself.
Focus on each election, even if small
We have seen how the BJP’s 1987 triumph in the AMC election of 1987 paved the road for its political transformation from being an insignificant also-ran (it had won only nine seats in 1980, 11 in 1985) into its subsequent dominance from 1990s.
The New BJP, under Modi, applied the lessons of Gujarat to UP from 2014 onwards. UP had elected a BJP chief minister (Kalyan Singh) in 1991, before Gujarat, but the party had entered a period of electoral darkness in the state through the 2000s. For example, the party had not fought panchayat elections in UP for 12 years. This resulted in a whole “army of politically conscious citizens”, who, in Amit Shah’s words, “should have been with us joining other parties simply because we could not provide them with a political avenue”. This was seen as part of an effort to focus on communities that had not been supporting the BJP so far, what he called the hitherto “dark zone” of the state for BJP.
Just like Ahmedabad 1987, the BJP announced that henceforth it would contest “each election” in UP. Just as in Gujarat, the party’s renaissance in UP started with a focus on local body elections, which then got replicated in two subsequent national elections (2014, 2019) and two consecutive state polls (2017 and 2022).
Managerial and Organisational Oversight Systems
A key feature of the BJP’s electoral machinery is its ability to gather early intelligence and course-correct – when it gets it right – for damage control at the ground-level when things are not going its way. This accrues to a strong structure of multiple layers of managerial oversight with six kinds of presidents: at the booth, mandal, district, region, district, state and national.
As a leader who began his career in the sangathan, Modi has been intrinsically linked to the evolution of several of these managerial structures. The BJP’s introduction of the idea of ‘booth adhyaksh’ (booth president) and ‘mandal adhyaksh’ (mandal president] dates back to an experiment in the Chandigarh BJP. This can be traced back to Modi’s watch as party leader in-charge there.
Similarly, a core feature of the BJP’s political ascendance after 2014 has been the use of what the party called ‘vistaraks’. These are volunteers who agree to spend between 15 days, six months and a year in specific booths, far away from their home constituencies. They become major sources of external oversight away from local entrenched power structures.
The roots of this idea can be traced to what the BJP called ‘Vijay Kranti’ Karyakartas’ in the 1998 Madhya Pradesh election. Modi, at the time was BJP’s national general secretary in-charge of MP and identified 320 full-time workers who would dedicate a few months each for every single assembly constituency.
Fight each election like your last election
At a time when Rahul Gandhi as Congress leader on his Bharat Jodo Yatra, visited Gujarat only once, Modi as sitting prime minister did over 30+ election rallies. In Himachal, there was much mirth over a video of his phone call to a rebel candidate to try and convert him back. Yet, both instances demonstrated to party cadres the effort the party leadership was going to in order to win elections. Voters reward effort, consistency and what they see as intent as much as they do other things.
One of the reasons for the Congress’s decimation in Gujarat, five years after it ran the BJP so close in 2017, was that voters expected it to be a powerful opposition. Instead, most of the leading lights of that campaign defected to the BJP since and the party high command seemed to give up on Gujarat. Five years ago, Rahul Gandhi led the Gujarat campaign from the front. This time, he stayed away, except for a single day of campaigning. Voters and Congress workers saw the disinterest from the Congress’s top leadership and rewarded it in the same coin.
If “80% of life is turning up,” as Woody Allen once said, then the Congress, focused currently on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, simply didn’t turn up in Gujarat. In Himachal, in a state where power always alternates, the poll battle was a close contest.
In the democratic battlefield, 24×7 politics can only really be challenged with 24×7 politics. Not part-time engagement. BJP sources in Ahmedabad, for example, talk in awe of Modi’s practice during his time as chief minister of having two drivers for his car during election campaigns. This allowed him to “save time by sleeping in the car during night journeys” and to maximise his public engagements.
The making of a woman vote
A key driver of the BJP’s expansion post-2014 has been the making of a new women’s vote for the party. At a time when Indian women have begun voting at the same rate as men – this was not so historically – election data from 2014 onwards has repeatedly shown us that more and more women now vote BJP compared to Congress. The making of a strong women constituency for the BJP is not an accident. It can be traced back first to women-specific mobilisation in Gujarat.
In 2007, for example, Modi held women-only public meetings in almost every district in Gujarat, even before the election had even been announced. Government records showed that the Gujarat chief minister had personally presided over 27 mahila sammelans (women’s meetings) in various districts between March 10 and September 20, 2007 in the months leading up to the election announcement.
These women’s empowerment meetings were organised through various government departments and the CM made it a point to attend each one. When Modi briefed a journalist in May 2007 about his pre-election campaign approach, he too highlighted the mahila sammelans. Through these, Modi estimated that he had addressed over 28 lakh women in a two-month period before the Election Commission’s announcement of poll dates.
Journalist Brajesh Kumar Singh has pointed out that Modi had one message at these sammelans: “If you have any problem, then you write a letter to me. Your brother, your son is sitting in Gandhinagar. Just send a postcard.” The 2007 campaign is now remembered for sharp polarisation. Yet, beneath the sharp edges of that contest, it was the strategic wooing of the women’s vote that would be the bedrock of the party’s political mobilisation.
It was this model of mahila mobilisation that the New BJP built upon post-2014. A gender-focused image was an important but underrated building block of Modi’s prime ministerial bid in 2014 and 2019.
When I studied Modi’s speeches over a five-year period, for instance, I found that women featured among his top-5 focus areas in all his communications. In tandem with this, by 2019, Modi’s council of ministers featured more women than the two UPA regimes that preceded it. As a party, the BJP has more women representation in its national organisation than any other national party. So does the Gujarat BJP, in the state. The focused outreach on women voters is fundamental to BJP’s growth.
Beyond ideological positioning, electoral conquests require an electoral machinery, boots on the ground and a robust ground game. Building this structure from the ground up and keeping it oiled is one of the most important reasons why the new BJP under Modi wins more elections than it loses.
Nalin Mehta, an author and academic, is the Dean of School of Modern Media at UPES University in Dehradun, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University Singapore, and Group Consulting Editor, Network18. He is the author of The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party. Views expressed are personal.
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