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Modernisation, Modi, and Madhya Pradesh: The 3 Ms that reformed the BJP

Ajay Singh's 'The Architect of The New BJP' traces Narendra Modi's tremendous turnaround of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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It was in this context that Modi was given charge of Madhya Pradesh, with the 1998 assembly election round the corner. Having learnt his lessons in Gujarat, Haryana and Himachal in organization-building and politics, the new task was indeed challenging for him.

Modi, in his role as the BJP general secretary, took up this challenge in right earnest by making cautious moves. His first and foremost task was to convince a battery of senior leadership that the conventional method of doing politics would be replaced by innovative ways of expanding the organization. He held a series of training sessions in the state to mobilize the cadre with a purpose. His emphasis on training for cadre was so intense and focused that he soon acquired the nickname of ‘headmaster’ among the state party veterans.

Modi’s innovative ways to prepare the party cadre for the election were driven by the singular message of ‘fighting to win’. He introduced new units in the party: cells in charge of information technology (IT), media and civil aviation (the last being in charge of managing travel logistics of leaders during the campaign). These cells acted in tandem to give an edge to the party’s campaign. This was followed by a comprehensive roadmap on ‘how to win the election’. He motivated the cadre to launch simultaneous campaigns in twenty-five-odd places to raise the pitch of the campaign and take adversaries by surprise. He also educated workers on how to spread the message of good work done by the party. ‘Don’t panic, fight without fear’ was his advice for the party workers, who were suitably motivated and prepared for the election campaign.

At the same time, Modi carried out a detailed study of the strengths and weaknesses within the organization. He identified the areas where the party had still not reached out to voters. In Madhya Pradesh, Modi realized that politics was mainly a contesting ground between upper-caste leaders from the Congress and the BJP. There was scope for expansion among specific social groups—not only the SCs and OBCs, but also STs—especially in large tribal-dominated areas of what was to become Chhattisgarh. Co-opting these vulnerable and marginalized social sections into the BJP’s fold was like plucking low-hanging fruit.

Modi mobilized the party cadre in large numbers to concentrate on the areas dominated by scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. As for tribals, particularly in Chhattisgarh, the RSS had developed a strong base through the network of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams (VKAs), and the BJP’s political mobilization was seamlessly aligned with the RSS’s social work. This tag-along strategy was also necessitated by the paucity of funds—in 1998 the BJP was not as rich in political donations as it is now.

Along with organizational expansion and reorienting it to new priorities, Modi was conscious of populist methods that could attract voters to the BJP. He helped coin two slogans, ‘Ek vote mein do pradesh(In one vote, you will get two states)’ and ‘Chhattisgarh, aage barh(Chhattisgarh, move forward)’. These catchy slogans were intended to capture people’s imagination in Chhattisgarh, which was struggling for an identity of its own. At the national level, the Vajpayee-led government had promised the creation of three new states, including Chhattisgarh. The Congress and its chief minister, Digvijaya Singh, had also promised to carve Chhattisgarh out of MP as a separate state after the polls. Yet Modi’s slogans carried more conviction, as the BJP was in power in Delhi too.

Given the presence of veterans like Joshi, Saklecha, Patwa and Vikram Varma, and the larger-than-life shadow of Thakre looming over the state’s organizational structure, Modi’s task of persuading the leadership to fall in line and get in sync with the organizational
objectives was becoming increasingly difficult. At times he found his efforts running into the wall of conventional leadership symbolized by all the stalwarts. Of course, he was in constant touch with Thakre—the national president of the party from 1998 to 2000—to learn about the distinct features of the party’s organizational structure and travelled across the state to familiarize himself more with people. In negotiating the resistance from traditionalists within the BJP, he found support from yet another powerful general secretary, Pramod Mahajan.

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Perhaps Mahajan, whose unconventional style of functioning raised many an eyebrow within the BJP, was conscious of the resistance one had to face while ushering in change.

While the BJP was pulled in different directions at many places, the Congress, led by Digvijaya Singh, put up a coherent face. Digvijaya Singh had launched many social welfare schemes at the village and block levels to co-opt the rural political leadership by distributing doles. In terms of development, Madhya Pradesh lagged far behind many states. It had a woeful situation in the power sector, and bad roads impeded accessibility to interior villages and towns. Yet Digvijaya Singh managed to consolidate his position. The Congress won 172 of the 320 seats, leaving the BJP at 119. For the BJP, the loss, however, laid a strong foundation of organization-building in the state. It was for the first time that the party had gained ground in the tribal region and bagged a substantial number of seats reserved for the SCs and STs. Also, the whole exercise created a formidable election war machine in the state, which was to come in handy in 2003 when the party not only won the assembly election but also turned the state into an impregnable bastion where it ruled for three terms—till 2018, when the BJP lost narrowly to the Congress despite a higher vote share. (In 2020, however, with several Congress MLAs moving to the BJP, the party came back to power in the state.)

As a result of Modi’s exemplary devotion to the cause of the party, he was meanwhile appreciated and promoted to the post of the national general secretary (organization) on 19 May 1998. This post was so crucial that it had been held by only three stalwarts earlier: Deendayal Upadhyaya, Sunder Singh Bhandari and Kushabhai Thakre. Also, Modi was then named the spokesperson of the party—which was now in power at the national level. That was where he was before his grand return to the home state.

This excerpt from ‘The Architect of the New BJP’ by Ajay Singh has been published with the permission of Penguin Random House.

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