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Why and how ideology is central to winning elections in India

The disappearance of the term ‘post-ideological’ tells you a lot about the centrality of ideology in electoral politics.

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One of the toughest tasks for a political party during elections is to keep up the morale of its cadres as well as supporters. They may be enthused about the possible victory, but that alone may not be enough to make them go door-to-door and spend their time and money for weeks to canvass for their party or leader.

It takes a great amount of selflessness to devote one’s life to a political party. The fruits of power — such as rising within the party hierarchy or getting jobs and contracts when the party is in power — are not guaranteed. And when the party is down and out, and has no ability to distribute patronage, it is even more difficult to rejuvenate the cadre’s morale. How do you wage war when your soldiers are low in spirits?

The party can give them money, but even the richest political parties can only spend so much. It can give them access to the top leadership, but how many workers can a top leader meet in a day?

For the force multiplier effect, a political party needs the enthusiasm of its most critical mass of people. A party’s electoral fortunes can wax and wane depending on the levels of enthusiasm of this group. The most effective way of managing the morale of this critical mass of supporters is ideology. An ideology gives the party’s supporters a mission to strive for.

This is why no political party can survive without an ideological commitment.

Also read: Tukde Tukde Gang is the ultimate fake news of the North Korean media

‘Hindu khatre mein hain’

When the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), carried out a well-orchestrated “Tukde Tukde Gang” propaganda at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016, I asked an RSS apparatchik about the need to do things like these.

Narendra Modi had become India’s first Prime Minister with an absolute majority since 1984. He had done so by promising economic development, not Hindutva domination of society. So, what explained this orchestrated attempt to label Leftists as anti-national traitors and jail students on charges of sedition?

One answer could be that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doesn’t do everything for votes, certain things are done because it believes in them. That is ideological commitment. The RSS apparatchik said this commitment is needed for elections too. “Our supporters need an ideological dose from time to time,” he explained.

I had a similar conversation with a commander of the BJP’s social media battalion. “Liberals are lying when they say all our online supporters are paid,” he said. “Organised efforts need resources but it is not possible to pay every volunteer,” he said.

What is it, then, I asked, that makes them keyboard warriors all day and night? He explained that people like him use ideology to turn supporters into volunteers and charge up existing volunteers. This is why you will be trolled on Twitter a lot more for attacking Hindutva than you would for attacking Narendra Modi. When you attack Hindutva, our battalion commander will bring your tweet to the notice of many of his keyboard warriors and ask them to fight back.

This is also why so much of the Hindutva propaganda online has the “Hindu khatre mein hain” vibe (‘Hindus are endangered’). How do you make people pick up arms unless they are made to feel threatened?

The BJP social media member recounted one of the first such instances on Twitter. It was 2010 and journalist Sagarika Ghose had coined the term “Internet Hindus”. This, the battalion commander explained, was used by him to charge up his volunteer army. Its success taught him a lesson he uses to this day: liberal attacks on Hindutva can be turned into victimhood, thus increasing online engagement by volunteers. It also helps recruit new people, no doubt.

This exploding ideological energy is then channelised into more mundane causes, such as having to defend Modi’s poor economic performance.

Also read: How Kanhaiya, Umar, Hardik, Jignesh, Shehla and Chandrashekhar Azad can still find their way

‘Why not 90 per cent?’

In the Madhya Pradesh assembly election in 2018, Congress’ Kamal Nath reportedly asked a group of Muslim religious leaders: “Please check the previous voting figures. They are available on the Internet…where there are (areas with) Muslim votes, how much voting took place. If it was 50-60 per cent, then why 60 percent, why not 90 per cent?”

The answer to ‘why not 90 per cent?’ is the lack of ideological commitment on the part of the Congress. Among the party’s core voters left in states like Madhya Pradesh are Muslims and Dalits. And the party takes both of them for granted.

When you look at the Congress party giving into the BJP agenda on Article 370 and Ram Mandir, you are forced to ask why anyone ideologically opposed to the BJP should vote for the Congress. And this applies not just to the Congress, but to opposition parties at large.

Also read: India should abolish state governments since Modi can run the country all by himself

Post-ideological no more

Parties moderate their ideological quotient to come to power and become mainstream. But if they completely give up on their ideology, or go against it, they find the ground beneath their feet slipping. The extra swing voter won’t even come to you if your core base is seen deserting you.

The anti-corruption Jan Lokpal movement in 2011-12 was asked to clarify its ideological leanings. It had people from the extreme Left as well as from the extreme Right. The ‘movement itself is an ideology’ is an anachronism; we live in a post-ideological era. You won’t hear the term “post-ideological” in 2019, when one Hindutva project after another is seeing fruition. Politics today is more ideological than it has been in a long time, with Hindutva becoming central to the Modi agenda.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has gone from opposing everything about Modi to becoming the only opposition leader who actively “supports and welcomes” Hindutva victories on Article 370 and Ram Mandir. He wants Muslim votes and, at the same time, he wants Modi voters to see him as the Modi equivalent in Delhi.

Such waffling and pusillanimity is the result of the AAP not having any ideological commitment. It even gave up on the Jan Lokpal Bill and ‘Swaraj’ (statehood for Delhi), the two central ideas it had advocated before the 2014 Lok Sabha election. No wonder the party doesn’t have the kind of volunteer base it did during 2012-15. Not knowing what they were fighting for anymore, the volunteers left.

Also read: Three things Indian liberals held dear were tested this Lok Sabha election

Dustbin of history

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) uses songs from the Telangana movement in its campaign even today, even though it is not fighting for a Telangana state anymore. But they keep alive the Telangana pride to keep the Congress and the BJP at bay. It may not be enough to win votes but it is enough to get the TRS workers going. It reflects a continuity from the movement to statehood, from opposition to power – something that the AAP was unable to carry forward.

Political formations that do not have ideological conviction, or where ideological conviction changes without explanation, often find themselves in the dustbin of history. The Left Front ruled West Bengal for 34 years by implementing some land reforms. Then, to support industries, it wanted to take away the land given to the farmers, and it wanted to enforce this change overnight. The people threw them out.

The BJP of Modi and Amit Shah has given a lot of trouble to some of its core supporters, the trader community, but they can’t desert the BJP because of ideological commitment to Hindutva.

A serious challenge to the BJP hegemony will come from ideological conviction, not surrender.

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  1. For most it is not a battle for ideology. It is battle between Mandal and kamandal. Pro and anti reservationists. For now Mandal checkmated. As a strategy Ayodhya etc had come handy. Kahi pe nigahen Kahi pe nishana.

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  3. A very hasty article again. Could be much more analytical. Oxford dictionary defines ideology as “A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” or alternatively “The set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual.” In that sense “Garibi Hatao” was an ideology which Congress spent cheaply and now it cannot go back to. Similarly “Nasbandi” less population route to prosperity was again ideology which became Congress’s nemesis. When these didn’t work, then the “foreign hand” was a popular excuse. Reforms and deregulation was too much of a PVN Rao’s legacy and therefore not seen as a good economic ideology, and dumped. Now when BJP is realising its ideology (hyper nationalist Article 370, and hyper religious Ayodhya), it is felt that the opposition does not have an equally potent counter ideology. But unfortunately having tried a lot of ideologies very ineffectively, the opposition is staring at an empty ‘ideological’ vessel.

    That said, the headline states “in India”. Ideology has been and is very much a part of electioneering in most democracies. Examples: “Get Brexit Done”; “Make America Great Again” and now the rise of right wing in Spain (which was almost insulated from right wing movement across Europe) gives evidence that ideology is not exclusive to India.

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