Recent local elections in India, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, have highlighted the influence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the country’s political life. Nalin Mehta, Dean of the School of Modern Media UPES, Dehradun, has just published The new BJP, Modi and the emergence of the world’s largest political party (Westland, Delhi, 2022), an 800-page book in which he presents the BJP, the world’s largest political party, in a whole new light. Its transformation and modernization under Modi’s leadership enabled it to embed itself deeply in the political landscape and hastened the decline of Congress, the party that presided over India’s fortunes after India’s independence in 1947. The BJP has evolved from a fringe opposition party into one building a new legitimacy by expanding its electoral base, which its opponents are now struggling to fight.
Why did you decide to call your book The New BJP?
Many people have asked me why I didn’t choose “real BJP” or “old BJP” as a title. Of course, the BJP has existed since 1980. Its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was founded in 1951. The ideology of Hindu nationalism was fully formed by the 1950s. However, today’s BJP is very different from the BJP before 2014 [lorsque Narendra Modi est arrivé au pouvoir] which was essentially an upper caste and more urban party. The party has changed a lot since then. The BJP has now become the dominant party in the countryside, particularly in the Hindi-speaking parts of northern India. This happened because after 2014 the BJP created a new social coalition in which the lower castes are much better represented. The most representative example is the state of Uttar Pradesh, the largest in the country, where, according to my research, 57.5% of BJP candidates for national parliament in 2019 were from lower castes. Likewise, 52.8% of the candidates in the 2017 provincial elections in that state were from these castes. These high percentages of representation are also found at other levels of party leadership.
“The party has succeeded in establishing new women’s suffrage in rural areas. This change is crucial. Historically, Indian women have voted less than men.”
What other sources to activate the BJP to ensure its dominance over political life in India?
The BJP has also focused on building a modern welfare state through so-called DBTs (Direct Benefit Transfers), a system that allows beneficiaries to receive benefits directly without intermediaries, such as building their house or installing a toilet. This enabled him to create a new social class of voters who voted for him because they had government support. Eventually, the BJP succeeded in establishing new women’s suffrage in rural areas. This change is crucial. Historically, Indian women have voted less than men. And those who did voted for Congress rather than the BJP. In the 2019 national election, more women than men voted, and more for the BJP in most states. All of these changes have helped Narendra Modi’s party to establish itself as the main pole of Indian politics.
Interestingly, the first chapter of your book is about Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Does he symbolize exactly the “new BJP”?
Absolutely. He is a saffron monk whose re-election as chief of Uttar Pradesh illustrates this development. He is the first prime minister of that state since independence to serve a second consecutive term. He also managed to increase his share of voice. Yogi created a new voting base in that state between 2017 and 2022. And that alongside Narendra Modi, who remains the country’s most popular politician. Yogi’s rise in Uttar Pradesh differs from other regions where the party relied solely on the prime minister to mobilize masses. In Uttar Pradesh it is Modi and Yogi together. Yogi is undoubtedly one of the most influential BJP leaders today and will have a role to play in the post-Modi era.
Still, Narendra Modi is the main architect of the BJP’s success.
Without doubt. The transformation of the party I mentioned is directly attributable to him, as well as his lieutenant Amit Shah, the home secretary who served as the formation’s president between 2014 and 2020. These two men made it the largest political education in the world before the Chinese Communist Party by creating a very strong basic organizational structure that allowed it to grow from 35 million members in 2014 to 174 million in 2019.
“There is no doubt that the debate in India has shifted to the right. What was once politically incorrect is now openly discussed.”
Is the BJP’s mastery of the means of communication at the origin of this success?
Historically, the BJP has always relied on new communication technologies. In the 1980s it used tapes and video when other parties did not. With the advent of digital technology, it has surpassed others again. In essence, the BJP has always operated at the confluence of technology and politics. Today, when other parties have joined it in this field, it is characterized by its size. For example, Narendra Modi was a Twitter phenomenon long before he became prime minister and is one of the most followed politicians in the world. In the book, I examined and compared the digital and conventional communication strategy of the BJP and the Congress Party. The Prime Minister’s Party has managed to build calibrated communications for each of its audiences. I was surprised to find that the myth that the BJP only talks about its core issues (Hinduism, terrorism, Kashmir) in its mainstream communications was wrong. In fact, he talks about everything from development to agriculture. And most importantly, he talks more about the Congress Party than he does about himself! It presents itself primarily as an anti-congress party. Interestingly, Congress has focused most of its digital communications on Twitter, despite being the country’s smallest social network. If you look on Facebook, Instagram, you will see that the BJP is much better established than Congress, which seems quite monolithic in its communication. Narendra Modi even has a Linkedin page that allows him to reach specific audiences.
What about the religious question?
Undoubtedly, the debate in India has shifted to the right. What was once politically incorrect is now openly discussed. Since the 1950s there has always been a debate about the place of religion in public life, but the problem was that there was a huge gap between the idealism of that debate and the way it was put into practice. This has allowed the BJP to accuse Congress of duplicity and use this to advance its agenda. The elections have shown us that the more the BJP emphasizes identity issues, the more it benefits. The last municipal elections in Uttar Pradesh showed that even without the Muslim vote he could win.
Given the BJP’s show of force, what do you think of the future of Congress?
Even at its peak in 2019, the BJP received 37.4% of the vote, meaning over 60% of Indians did not vote for it. The weakness of congressional leadership and its inability to handle a stark electoral challenge means it has become, albeit unwittingly, an asset to the BJP. The party has been in decline for fifteen years because it no longer has the charismatic mass leaders it once had. If you watch its second season you will find the same guides as in the 1990s, there was no renewal. This has created a political vacuum at the national level. Avoiding this will require a change in the leadership of Congress.
Nalin Mehta, a former journalist turned academic, has shown great tenacity in this compilation work, which has enabled him to draw a renewed portrait of India’s main political party. He has both analyzed masses of documents about the BJP and deciphered how its leaders have managed to turn it into a steamroller that other formations find it difficult to counter. Thanks to this reference book, the workings of Indian political life will become more understandable.
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