When the differences between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress are counted, people often list the popularity of Narendra Modi, allegations of corporate media being one-sided, of the BJP having a huge advantage in terms of campaign finance, and of course the Hindu nationalist ideology.
These factors are all visibly out there for the naked eye to see. They explain a lot but they don’t explain the BJP’s surprise victories.
How does the BJP sweep state elections like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that it was actually expected to lose? We have seen this movie before. The BJP was expected to lose the 2022 Uttarakhand assembly elections owing to anti-incumbency. They had changed two chief ministers in 5 years, going into the polls with a third one. They swept the election.
The BJP’s most stupendous victory till date — Uttar Pradesh in 2017 — may have been expected by many. But nobody, not even BJP leaders themselves, could force winning 312/404 seats, and then some more for its allies.
Some of these sweeping victories surprise so many people that even ordinary voters who vote against the BJP sometimes start wondering if the electronic voting machines are manipulated. If that was true, what would explain the BJP’s sometimes embarrassing defeats, such as Karnataka earlier this year?
Winning the booth
The X-factor that gives the BJP an edge over its rivals today is the party organisation. VD Sharma, the BJP’s state chief in Madhya Pradesh, explained the party’s 8% lead over the Congress as a result of the hard work of 4 million booth workers.
What do these booth workers do? For one, they make the party feel accessible to citizens. The BJP aims to have 1 booth worker for every 50 households, which is incredible, and this target tends to be met best in the Hindi heartland.
The Congress and other opposition parties have only 1 or 2 booth workers, often demoralised and unenthusiastic and allied with local leaders rather than the party as a whole. Voters obviously find it much easier to deal with the BJP, because they can easily access the party and have their grievances heard.
The new Modi-Shah era BJP believes elections are won and lost at the booth level. Workers are given a target to earn at least 51% votes in each booth — the results are easily verifiable with the Election Commission’s Form 20 data which tells you how every booth of around 1-1400 voters voted.
BJP’s dominance on Whatsapp
The Congress and most other opposition parties can never match the BJP’s dominance on Whatsapp simply because it is the army of workers that are running Whatsapp groups and spreading their message. Nobody can replicate the scale of social media messaging without the army of millions of workers.
This workforce is centrally managed by the party, and is therefore not beholden to local BJP leaders, as is the case in Congress and other parties. If anything, local leaders are often beholden to this strong organisation. Tasks given to the workers are verified using technology. These days, special posts have been created to target beneficiaries of government schemes at the booth level, and for social media.
When the going gets tough, when the party is facing anti-incumbency or when the opponents have some aces up their sleeves, it is the party organisation that saves the day for the BJP. That is what has just happened in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
The BJP’s party hierarchy keeps the army of workers engaged. The top leadership of the party, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, regularly addresses and honours workers. For example, in June this year, PM Modi addressed 1 million booth workers across the country. Significantly, this address was made from Bhopal.
When was the last time you saw a headline about Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge or de facto president Rahul Gandhi addressing Congress workers?
If you meet Congress workers in the Hindi heartland states, they tell you that nobody from the party meets them, takes their feedback, leave alone give them directions. Local leaders don’t give them money, motivation, ideological purpose, access to power, nothing. Sooner or later these workers join the BJP.
It’s not very difficult
Unlike getting favourable media coverage or matching the BJP in campaign finance, building a robust centralised party organisation is not very difficult. Even if the scale of the BJP’s organisation can’t be matched, the disparity can be reduced.
The Congress party’s victory in Karnataka had many factors behind it, including the demoralised BJP cadre facing in-fighting in the state BJP leadership and anti-incumbency on the ground. But that victory for the Congress was not without some investment in recharging the Congress worker base.
In Telangana, too, where the Congress has just defeated the powerful incumbent Bhartiya Rashtra Samiti, the Congress did invest in workers.
That’s a lesson the Congress party in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh can learn from their South Indian counterparts. The big missing element in Rahul Gandhi’s already-forgotten Bharat Jodo Yatra was a simultaneous party organisation drive.
Part of the reason why the Congress party can’t really do this is because there’s nobody who will do this thankless, arduous job. In the BJP it was Amit Shah who did it, starting 2014. The BJP’s critics and even the media ignore how often we hear the word “Sangathan” (Hindi for organisation) from the BJP leadership.
The Congress party is bound to lose the 2024 Lok Sabha election badly. They may want to use this election as an opportunity to build a party organisation if they want to survive.