Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mutation of the BJP: A change from cadre-based ideological party to an election-winning machine

Amit Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wasted no time after the party’s stupendous victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election early last month. He went over to Gujarat, where assembly elections are due in December this year, and told the cadres that he wants to win 150 seats for the party out of 180. This was to keep the magnitude of victory at the same level as that of UP where the party got 304 out of 405. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a step ahead of his protégé, Shah. In his meetings with the party’s members of parliament (MPs) from various states last week, he told them to start work for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and advised them to use social media more aggressively to reach out to the people. The Modi-Shah duo seem dedicated to fighting elections and winning them. Much like the Indian cricket team now, the BJP too is focused on winning games. Nothing else matters.
The change in temper and mood of the party is nothing less than radical. Of course, Shah’s predecessors, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, too talked of booth management and strengthening of the team at the booth level. There has always been a strategy of deployment of the cadre, and there has always been a sense of discipline, something that the party has inherited from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) oraganisational principles. What has changed under the Modi-Shah dispensation is that the cadres are deployed in a more efficient way, in greater numbers and in a sustained manner. While the other parties prepare for the elections a few months beforehand, at the most a year before the date, the BJP workers are preparing for the next election the day the present one ends. It is a rigorous regime of preparation and practice.
There is nothing unprecedented or unique about the BJP’s cadres fanning out for the election. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its other Left Front allies had done it successfully in the West Bengal for the 35 years they were in power in the state. As a matter of fact, it was common to describe the BJP and the communists as ideology-bound cadre-based parties which did not win elections. The CPI-M broke the spell of being a loser in West Bengal and managed to maintain its success strike for three decades. The BJP is looking to a long success run as well.
The question that arises, and it might seem a naïve one, is whether the BJP and the communists lose their ideology, or whether they abandon doctrine and dogma, when they taste electoral victory. There would be analysts who would argue that these parties sacrifice their ideological integrity at the podium of success. But the issue is a little more complicated than that. The Left Front in West Bengal during its long reign had systematically infiltrated the governmental system, the educational and cultural institutions where the party faithful were given the key posts and with the mandate of spreading the ideology. The BJP has done so too when it was in power last at the centre under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani dispensation. Prime Minister Modi is doing it at his own pace, placing the ideologically committed people in places of power across the system. It would be futile to cry foul at this working of the spoils system. The answer to the question is that the BJP and the communists do not sacrifice ideology, but that they use power to infuse the system with their ideology. The genuine difficulty that arises in this kind of a situation is that the ideologue who is inducted into the system has to display sufficient intelligence and an ability to adapt and to find reasonable solutions to problems that crop up in the work situation and which essentially lie outside the ideological compass. The ideology-oriented parties willy-nilly become pragmatic while continuing with the illusion of adhering to the dogma.
The other existential question that rears its head is whether the electoral success is to be attributed to the super-efficiency of the party structures and the ingenuity of the leaders who deploy the cadres in a way that defeat seems unthinkable, or is there something else that has to be reckoned as well. The feeling seeps into the party, both among the leaders as well as the rank and file, that it is the party that is winning the elections and all that needs to do is to maintain the peaks of performance. The truth is slightly different. The party wins an election because people vote for it and against others. The party is not winning because of its superior tactics. This is the rule of preference in democratic politics. It would be folly for a party to believe that it is unbeatable as long as it has its tactics right. It is the people who decide and not the party as to who the winner should be. It is crucial to remember that the BJP and the communists had been in political wilderness for decades despite ideology and cadres. Of course, communists are once again in the wilderness though this time round the cadres have disappeared.
Modi and Shah are aware of the fact that it is not sufficient to maintain the party’s electoral machinery in top order. Elections are fought on programmes and slogans. But programmes and slogans may not work at times. All that the party managers can hope for is that there is a right combination of cadres and programmes. There is a possibility that programmes might sometimes work and the cadres may not be necessary. But the converse does not hold good. Mere cadres will not help to win elections.
The BJP looks a formidable and unbeatable team today, driving all the other players into a state of despair. Modi, Shah and the rest of the BJP might be experiencing that inevitable sense of complacency which is the natural outcome of victory, and they may even be slipping into the false belief that tactics are supreme, and they may be tempted to focus on tactics alone. The people have the ace up their sleeves and they can shock political parties out of their wits.

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