Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses party supporters at the BJP Headquarters during a celebration following the party's win in Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh and others states, in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently India’s ruling party at the centre, completed 42 years of its existence on April 6, 2022. I happened to visit the party’s headquarters the day after to meet a senior leader. Let me be perfectly upfront. I am not used to frequenting the headquarters of political parties. In fact, let it be stated on record that I have done so, very seldom, and that I am not and have never been the member of any political party.

In fact, I have not even visited the office of any party, except one — the BJP. The first time I visited the party’s headquarters, it was in 2004, before the elections.

In the previous general elections in 1999, the BJP, under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee, led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to victory with 302 seats in the 545 member Lok Sabha, of which BJP accounted for 182. The Indian National Congress, which, under Sonia Gandhi, had polled 28.30% to 23.75% of the BJP, only managed 114 seats. It was a gamechanger for India.

10 Ashok Road

That was a different time, and the party was also quite different. The office on 10 Ashok Road, New Delhi was also much more accessible. Some senior functionaries, loaned from the parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), even camped on the premises. One important worker stayed in a tiny back room, sleeping on a mattress-less bed, apparently the same room which Narendra Modi himself had once occupied.

I remember walking in with a fellow-academic from abroad. There was hardly any security. The main waiting area was dominated by a large and happy portrait of Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. As I waited to see my host who had invited me for a meeting, there was suddenly a flurry of activity.

A white ambassador pulled up to the porch, preceded by a pilot Maruti Gypsy. Advani-ji himself, tall and avuncular, stepped out of the car, flanked by two Black Cat commandos. As he walked in, he greeted us with a Namaste, smiling warmly and easily, before being whisked inside.

Unfortunately, 2004 wasn’t a good year for the BJP. In a reverse swing after an advancement of election dates, the BJP, although it bagged 26.53% of the votes to Congress’s 22.16%, came second, with 138 seats to the latter’s tally of 145. The Congress-led United Democratic Front, founded soon after, ruled India for ten years, with Dr Manmohan Singh serving twice as India’s Prime Minister.

Part of the culture

Only recently, I happened to visit the “new” party headquarters of BJP on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (DDU) Marg, inaugurated by Modi three years back in February 2018. As it was the day after the party had completed 42 years of its existence, - I should have congratulated the senior leader, but simply didn’t have the presence of mind. The fact is that I was late while my host was bang on time. He said, “It is part of our culture to keep to the schedule."

Also, the building, resembling a modern and modular corporate office, was also somewhat bewildering, with its numerous corridors, lifts, and bare, characterless cubicles. I got the sense of a behemoth, with many departments and units, managed by an efficient HR team. Only the “Girnar Kahwa,” the slightly salty herbal tea that we were served in paper cups, gave a sense of a distinct cultural or, in this case, culinary presence.

The BJP today, with over 100 million registered members, is not only the largest political organisation in the world, but certainly the most successful in India today. Indeed, the party under Prime Minister Modi seems invincible, having mastered the dual formula of delivering development and winning elections. The transformation of the BJP, from its humble beginnings in the Jana Sangh, the tumultuous Janata Party phase, and its resurrection in 1980 in its present avatar, is a saga that legends are made of.

Charting the rise of BJP

This is precisely what Bhupender Yadav, Member of Parliament from Rajasthan, tipped by some to be the next party president, and economist Ila Patnaik, have attempted to do in The Rise of the BJP: The Making of the World’s Largest Political Party (Penguin, 2022). Charting the rise of the party with detailed accounts of its chronological and geographical expansion, this twelve-chapter book, full of facts and figures, is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary Indian politics.

While it does not shy away from describing how the RSS seeded, nurtured, and guided both the Jana Sangh and the BJP, the book maintains the time-tested party line that “The RSS and BJP do not take decisions on behalf of each other, do not influence each other’s leadership decisions … While both organisations enjoy independent existence … they share a moral bond, engage in ideas exchange and help each other grow” (248).

In the book’s Epilogue, the authors present their conclusion: “Going forward, the combination of the BJP’s dedicated and disciplined cadre, its non-dynastic leadership, its inner party democracy, its relentless activities, training and induction of new members every three years gives it an advantage over other political parties in India.” We certainly cannot quarrel with this statement.

Can BJP be defeated? When asked how that might be accomplished at the recent ABP Indias of India Summit, one of the party’s seniormost leaders and popular Minister of Minister for Road Transport Highways, Nitin Gadkari, quipped, “I can tell you how to make BJP win. As to how to make it lose, that is the work of the opposition, isn’t it?”

As of now, the latter, despite whatever electoral expert and political consultant Prashant Kishor believes, seems clueless.