The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s governance-related follies are well-documented. The party did not fight the 17th Lok Sabha election on its record of good governance. Still, it is likely to increase its seat share in Parliament from 282 in 2014 to 303 in 2019. Its vote share is also likely to go up from 31 per cent in 2014 to approximately 41 per cent in 2019. Its national electoral footprint has expanded. In 2014, the BJP won one-third or more seats of the total seats on offer in 16 states. In 2019, this figure is likely to increase to 20 states. These outcomes are simply remarkable. But they are not counterintuitive or puzzling if we consider the power differential that has opened up between the BJP and its rivals.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) consistently portrays its rival Congress as the party of privilege and power, the proverbial Goliath. Narendra Modi often refers to Rahul Gandhi or the Congress as the “Naamdar” (the privileged ones), and calls himself or the BJP the “Kaamdar” (the working class). This clever branding, however, is deeply ironic. Because over the past five years, the BJP has emerged as the electoral giant, the actual Goliath. The Congress, by contrast, has been reduced to the clueless underdog.
The reason we are drawn to the David vs Goliath parable in which the weaker David defeats the far stronger Goliath is its exceptionalism. In real life, though, on most days, raw power matters and Goliath crushes David. As long as the BJP holds the organisational, financial and leadership advantage over its adversaries, it will have a head start in most electoral races.
The BJP’s return to government with a parliamentary majority, despite its underwhelming performance in office, highlights the salience of forces that matter to electoral mobilisation – organisational strength, financial resources and charismatic leadership. None of these elements can guarantee a party’s electoral dominance alone, but together these factors form a potent combination.
The BJP has at its disposal the services of the largest mobilisation force in the country, its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle tell us that the strength of the RSS volunteer cadre stood between 1.5 and 2 million in 2016. The organisation’s shakhas or branches are spread over 36,000 locations. The membership and alumni of the 36 RSS affiliates add another 6 million volunteers to the total number of potential mobilisers available to the BJP.
These volunteers work alongside the BJP party workers during elections, and in-between elections, they expand and nurture the ideological networks of party supporters. They train new entrants, introduce them to the Hindu nationalist narrative, and connect individuals and families sympathetic to this ideology. During elections, they monitor and mentor party workers. No other Indian party even comes close to matching the organisational support that the RSS provides to the BJP.
The BJP, today, is India’s wealthiest party by a long margin. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, the BJP’s income in 2013-14 was Rs 673.81 crore (44.37 per cent of the total income of the national parties). By 2017-18, the BJP’s income had increased to Rs 1027.3 crore (73.5 per cent of the income of national parties).
During the same period, the Congress saw its relative share in the total income for national parties fall from 39 per cent to 14 per cent. The Congress only had approximately Rs 200 crore in its coffers in 2017-18. Similarly, the electoral bonds introduced as a vehicle for campaign finance have been cornered by the BJP. In 2017-18, 95 per cent party contributions made through electoral bonds went to the BJP. The financial resources allowed the BJP to fund the best-organised campaign rallies, launch a campaign television channel, finance an army of social media warriors, and support the campaign expenses of their candidates.
But the one factor that gives the BJP the biggest edge over its competitors is the leadership of Narendra Modi. He is India’s omnipresent leader on the ground and in the voter’s mind. Voters receive text messages from Modi, they hear him on the radio, and see him across television channels and on billboards. His images appear on shopping bags, T-shirts as well as on women’s suits and saris. He dominates the national conversation like no other contemporary politician. He is the face of Indian foreign and security policies. The government’s programmes and schemes are associated with him. Within his own party, he is viewed as the supreme leader. Public opinion polls find him to be India’s most popular politician. Lifted by the perception that the BJP managers have succeeded to build for him, Modi stands taller than all other leaders inside and outside his party.
The BJP is currently in power in 16 of India’s 29 state assemblies, and the results of the parliamentary elections suggest that this number will increase. The Congress-supported or led state governments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are suddenly vulnerable. We should not be surprised to see the rupture of alliances and defections of coalition partners in these states. They may not survive these results.
Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California – Santa Barbara and the author of Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements (Oxford University Press 2019). Rajkamal Singh is a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara.