Walter Andersen writes: How Narendra Modi transformed the BJP

Ajay Singh has written an important book (The Architect of the New BJP: How Narendra Modi Transformed the Party, forthcoming from Penguin) that analyzes Narendra Modi’s impressive organizational skills in establishing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as India’s dominant party political party while advancing his own career path to Prime Minister (PM). The Prime Minister’s astute political savvy was once again demonstrated in the run-up to the recent general election. On March 10, the BJP was declared winners in four of the five states with a spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The BJP’s electoral performance in these states seems to confirm Singh’s key tenets regarding Modi’s ability to successfully use the party organization as an interface between the people and their desires on the one hand and the government/bureaucracy on the other. Much of the book is an analysis of why Singh believes this system is likely to survive even if Modi disappears from the political scene.

Studying any organization requires an in-depth look at how it works, which is why many scholars analyzing political parties either avoid this difficult task or provide only a superficial analysis. Singh is an exception; He knows many of the key figures discussed in the book and brings to his study the insights and contacts he gained as a journalist covering national political issues. Unlike so many studies on Modi, this is not a book that relies almost entirely on news. Nor does it have an agenda aimed primarily at condemning or praising.

One of the strengths of this book is its analysis of the factors that contribute to Modi’s organizational skills. Among the most important are (1) the focused self-discipline expected of every member of his poor, religiously inclined Gujarati family to work together systematically for their welfare, and (2) his participation from the age of eight in the daily meetings at the local unit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with her focus on self-discipline and building a cohesive nation in a Hindu cultural context. The key elements of the RSS’s working style (which RSS defines as “character building”) impressed Modi, and the RSS became something of a surrogate family for him.

As mentioned in our book The Brotherhood in Saffron on how the RSS and its affiliates work (co-authored with Shridhar Damle; re-edited by Penguin 2019), a key reason for its cohesion and influence was its decision-making system centered on organizational secretaries (referred to as the Sangathan model ) composed mainly of people who have shown loyalty to the RSS and its ideology to ensure certain goals are achieved within the organisation’s ideological parameters.

This was a system adopted by all RSS affiliated organizations, including the BJP.

Singh notes throughout the book that this system appealed to Modi’s own commitment to getting things done, which was almost certainly influenced by his family, particularly his mother. Modi was also fortunate in 1982 to associate with the current Home Secretary and his closest confidant and political adviser, Amit Shah, early in his political career. The two proved successful in unifying a faction-dominated BJP in Gujarat and then nationally. Shah also orchestrated the BJP’s two successful national parliamentary campaigns (2014 and 2019).

Modi went beyond the RSS’s narrow Sangathan model to mobilize voter support, although, as Singh points out, he retained it to the extent that he could staff the party organization by relying on full-time RSS staff supported and occupied the organizational positions of the party at higher levels. During his three terms as prime minister and working closely with Amit Shah in Gujarat, Modi developed an electoral strategy that involved recruiting influential leaders in every village and city, regardless of their past policies – a tactic long associated with the Congress party . But these recruitment tactics did not undermine the party’s larger Hindu ideological orientation, as the party’s leadership at all levels came largely from the RSS.

Over the past 10 years, with the support of Shah, Modi has centralized power both within the party and the bureaucracy. The former national alternative, Congress, is crumbling and the opposition, filled with jealous regional barons, seems unable to work together. He is the strongman at the head of state, whom many Indians associate with good governance and see as a symbol of the country’s national identity.

Take the recent State Assembly election in UP, in which the BJP won 255 seats out of 403 (273 seats counting two minor allies) and secured a majority alone for the second straight year despite facing several massive Covid spikes in peasant protests and significant unemployment. The findings appear to support Singh’s idea that the “Modi-Shah duo have perfected the art of election micromanagement.”

This electoral project also had an ideological vision: an attempt, as Singh notes, to replace the “congress system.” . . designed by [a] western-educated elite” with a BJP that is “the only contender to claim an all-Indian, indigenous type of party building.” The question is whether this project will continue after Modi. Singh believes that will be the case as Modi is likely to leave behind a robust organization.

(Andersen is a former Head of South Asia Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, USA. This article is an edited excerpt of his foreword to The Architect of the New BJP: How Narendra Modi Transformed the BJP by Ajay Singh, to published by Penguin Random House)

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